Bulls

With backs against the wall, Cavs now need LeBron's best

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With backs against the wall, Cavs now need LeBron's best

LeBron James sat in the far corner of the visitor's locker room Friday night, wrapped in ice, draped in towels, and holding court with his teammates.

Surrounded by James at their respective lockers were Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, three members of the Cavaliers' core who have embraced expanded roles in the recent days and weeks. The conversation, of which James did most of the talking, between teammates fluctuated between laughs and seemingly thorough analysis of the Game 3 that had ended just minutes earlier on a miraculous Derrick Rose 3-pointer.

Such a scenario - James instilling his wisdom on teammates - is far from uncommon, but given the circumstances of the Cavaliers facing a 2-1 deficit with a banged up core, the onus has been put on the game's best player both to perform at his highest level and get the most out of a group that hasn't yet been tested in this fashion.

On the surface James' performance in Friday night's 99-96 loss was some serious heavy lifting. In 44 minutes he scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 14 assists. Those 14 assists translated into 34 points, meaning James had a hand in 61 of Cleveland's 96 points.

[RELATED: Rose reaches new peak with game-winner]

Still, as if often the case in defeat, his blemishes took center stage. With Kyrie Irving nursing a sore foot, James was asked to handle the ball more and responded with seven turnovers. His jump shot failed him once again - he was 3-for-15 outside the painted area - and he missed a point-blank layup that would have given the Cavs a one-point lead in the game's final minute. For all James does, when his team loses the spotlight will always focus on what he didn't do.

"We have to be better," James said before narrowing his answer. "I have to be better."

Though they trail the series heading into Sunday's Game 4, the Cavaliers appear to have made the right adjustments around James to set themselves up for success. James hasn't played much on the interior as the second big man since Game 1 - with the later stages of Game 3 being an exception, when both teams went with a small-ball lineup - Tristan Thompson has arguably been the Cavs' second best player since entering the starting lineup in Game 2, and Matthew Dellavedova has proven to be more than capable on the second unit. J.R. Smith's return from a two-game suspension gave Cleveland additional depth in the backcourt, and the Cavs found their optimal closing lineup of Irving/Shumpert/Smith/James/Thompson despite Friday's loss.

But with Kevin Love already sidelined and Irving attempting to fight through pain that, with one aggravation, turns him into simply a "decoy," the already-thin Cavaliers can make all the right adjustments and still not have enough if James isn't in prime form. Against a Bulls team touting two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, a league MVP with optimal confidence in Derrick Rose and a feisty Joakim Noah doing all the intangibles, adjustments won't mean anything unless is James is playing at his best.

[RELATED: Cavs' chances could hinge on Irving's injured foot]

The two-time champion still hasn't shot better than 50 percent from the field in any playoff game this season, and he's shooting just 39 percent from the field in three games against the Bulls. He made one of his seven 3-point attempts Friday night while having to work for every bucket against Jimmy Butler, who has been able to focus more of his attention to guarding James than scoring with Rose catching fire in Games 1 and 3.

And yet with Love on the sideline, Irving a non-factor after aggravating his injury and James shooting 32 percent from the field the Cavaliers were 3 seconds away from forcing overtime. Contributions from Dellavedova and Smith off the bench, Thompson's work on the glass and timely 3-point shooting had Cleveland in position to steal Game 3 on a night in which they should have been blown out. That spoke volumes to James.

"We just kept fighting, and that’s what I love about this team," he said. "We just kept fighting and gave ourselves a chance at the end."

The biggest storyline surrounding the Cavaliers entering the playoffs was their lack of postseason experience. Irving, Love and Thompson all were making their second-season debuts, while Shumpert, Smith and Mozgov had never gone into a postseason with a target on their backs. None of those players had ever faced a deficit in a hostile environment like the one they'll face on Sunday, needing a win in Game 4 to avoid a 3-1 deficit heading back to Cleveland.

[RELATED: Cavaliers 'got to live with' Rose's game-winner]

The good news for James is that he's been in this position before, and he's thrived in it. Thirteen times a James-led team has trailed in a playoff series with the following game on the road. A young James began his career 0-5 in such games. But starting in 2010, the year he made his first trip to the Finals, he's 7-1 on the road when trailing in a series. And in those most recent eight games, James has averaged an eye-popping 33.4 points on 56 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in nearly 43 minutes per game. One of the game's smartest players knows when his back's against the wall, and he has the ability to take over a game when necessary.

That time is now. But more than just his own readiness, he has the confidence in the rest of his group to answer the call Sunday.

"I already know how we’re going to respond: the same way we did in Game 2 [a 15-point Cavs win]. Will that result in a win? We don’t know. But I don’t have any doubt of how we will play on Sunday," James said confidently. "We’re going to give ourselves a chance."

That chance will begin, and end, with James.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.