The Bulls didn’t own any face cards and certainly don’t carry anything like a big joker in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo or even a small joker like Khris Middleton, a budding All-Star.
But sometimes Jacks can walk across a table, and Bobby Portis strutted all through the BMO Harris Bradley Center Friday night for his best game as a pro.
He flexed, he preened and for the second straight fourth quarter, he gave the Bulls the ultimate pick-me-up in the form of 13 of his career-high 27 points as they continued their improbable run with a 115-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
If you’re counting, it makes the Bulls the first team to have a five-game winning streak immediately following a double-digit losing streak as that 10-game march to the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s ocean feels like worlds ago.
Friday’s win proved to be perhaps the toughest during this streak, against a team that wants to be the future of the East and employs the future’s most devastating prospect in Antetokounmpo.
But Portis showed why 25 teams were interested in his services while he served his eight-game suspension nearly two months ago, and also why the Bulls had no desire to move him.
“I thought Bobby was the difference in getting that game turned around,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We did not come out sharp.”
The Bulls trailed by 10 in the opening minutes when Portis entered and within five minutes, the deficit was erased and the Bulls owned a 28-22 surplus. There wasn’t much breathing room in the fourth quarter before Portis went to work on the offensive glass—and on Antetokounmpo in the post.
“We’re very confident, we’re all playing on one accord, playing for each other,” Portis said. “I feel like our unity is at an all-time high.”
“Everybody knows their role. We’ve had a whole new team, starting the season off with everything, it takes time. Everybody knows their independent roles and it’s been big for us.”
And Portis’ role has evolved into being a go-to guy and a source of confidence that was missing when the Bulls were losing 10 straight while having their energy and fervor questioned.
“It’s been fun up until this point, playing the game I love,” Portis said. “I think it’s my first time winning five straight games since I’ve been in the league.”
Portis was only slightly off, as the Bulls won six straight games in Portis’ rookie year of 2015-16, also Hoiberg’s maiden run with the franchise.
But now Portis and even Hoiberg look like seasoned veterans, comfortable in their own skin, attacking the night and circumstances to turn matters into a win-win.
Every time the sluggish Bucks seemed to get it together, Portis had an answer, with a putback or an elbow jumper, or drawing enough attention to clear the lane for a Kris Dunn layup.
“It’s what it’s all about, responding when you’re challenged,” Hoiberg said. “We knew it would be a physical, tough game against a blue-collar team. Just a really good, gritty win. I saw a lot of growth in our guys.”
If there’s anyone who represents the level of gritty on the Bulls roster, David Nwaba would win that without much protest. So it’s no surprise Hoiberg sicced the undersized Nwaba on Antetokounmpo to start the second half in place of Denzel Valentine.
Giving up at least seven inches to Antetokounmpo, he took the task with pride and knowing it’s the best way he’ll stick on this team or any team in the NBA is by doggedly taking the toughest covers and making their lives miserable.
“He’s a tough guard, an All-Star and a great player,” Nwaba said. “I did the best I could, I try to be aggressive as much as possible.”
Antetokounmpo only took two shots in the fourth quarter while finishing a point below his average with 29 points and 16 rebounds. Nwaba and the Bulls kept the Bucks out of the paint in the fourth quarter and had them playing from behind through most of it.
“We thought David was the only guy that had a chance of even slowing him down a little bit,” Hoiberg said. “You’re not gonna shut him down but David, I thought, made him work for everything he got in that second half.”
Middleton matched Antetokounmpo with 29 points but the Bucks’ bench couldn’t match the Bulls’, with Portis and Nwaba pacing things. Nikola Mirotic continued his personal streak, scoring 22 points with eight rebounds as he started again in place of Lauri Markkanen, who didn’t make the trip due to his back spasms.
Robin Lopez scored 18 with eight rebounds—including six on the offensive end that kept the Bucks from getting out on the break and unleashing Antetokounmpo in the open floor.
“I have really good confidence in myself. I struggled in the beginning,” Mirotic said.
The old Mirotic would’ve been useless for the rest of the game, pump-faking himself into oblivion. But he admitted he’s heard the calls from the media and fans to ditch the pump-fake, to play definitively.
“I tell myself, ‘Don’t worry Niko, just play it simple’,” Mirotic said. “If the shot isn’t falling, try to make the extra pass.”
The extra pass wasn’t necessary in the second half, especially when he hit a triple with 2:42 left to give the Bulls a 109-104 lead, three of his 16 second half points. When he made a tough catch for a layup and foul, the first person yelling in joy and hitting him with a chest bump was Portis.
“Wow, it’s been crazy to be honest,” Mirotic said. “We did play last year a little bit together but it’s not the same now. We both step up and I think we learn how to play with each other. We need to give credit to Fred for that. From my side, I’m just wishing that we continue what is best for the team.”
Mirotic was asked for any more predictions and he replied with a quick smile.
"Six-and-(zero)," he said, with the Philadelphia 76ers coming to Chicago Monday.
Someone alert Joel Embiid, this could be fun.