Bulls

Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine show up in Bulls win over Jazz

Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine show up in Bulls win over Jazz

A streaking Bobby Portis ran down the baseline after going full bore to close out on Joe Johnson, finding gold when Denzel Valentine launched a 45-foot fly pattern pass for a dunk.

That’s what’s called “Player Development”, as was Valentine’s triple that luckily rolled out to him in the left corner when Utah’s Rudy Gobert slapped Joffrey Lauvergne’s layup to Kingdom Come.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Valentine said. “You gotta stay patient, aggressive and confident.”

Both were critical plays in the fourth quarter against a quality opponent fighting for playoff position in the Bulls’ 95-86 over the Jazz Saturday night at the United Center.

Like Friday night, the Bulls played a spirited fourth quarter, erasing early mistakes and a double-digit deficit with vigor, timely shooting and an energy that’s rarely been seen this year.

One could say it was their best defensive performance of the season, on the heels of Wizards point guard John Wall carving up the Bulls’ defense for 20 assists. Holding the Jazz under 40 percent was an unsung highlight, and Jimmy Butler choked off the Jazz’ last hope by snatching the ball from a streaking Gordon Hayward and saving it from going out of bounds with less than a minute left and the Bulls leading by six.

“Go get the ball back,” Butler said. “It started with Mike (Carter-Williams) from making a play on the ball and making him alter his layup. I got it in just enough time to grab it. Just great hustle on everybody’s part.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was impressed by the overall effort on the defensive end, especially after the way they’ve played in the last stretch, having lost seven of their last eight.

“I thought we really locked in all night,” Hoiberg said. “We didn’t get off to a great start, down eight to ten off the bat. We did a good job in the second half, beginning of the third quarter.”

But perhaps the biggest highlight was the reliance on the young players who rose to the challenge under the circumstances, as the book is still out on Portis and Valentine to be sure.

For once, though, they produced in a winning situation, as Valentine scored 11 with 12 rebounds and four assists while Portis scored a career-high 22 points with five rebounds, doing his best to contain Joe Johnson on the perimeter while helping out on the mammoth Gobert (13 points, 13 rebounds) on the interior.

“Most of the time, I don’t play in the fourth quarter,” Portis said. “it was fun to see how fired up our guys were, even the bench was happy. The crowd, too. They were really involved tonight.”

If Portis followed the usual pattern of being pulled from the starting lineup as he was for Nikola Mirotic, he wouldn’t have seen the floor, as was the case with the revolving door of point guards.

But when he entered, he was aggressive, hitting jumpers and floaters, playing free and easy. After looking unsure of himself the last several games, he played definitively and it showed as he took advantage of every opportunity he had to score.

When he entered, the Bulls were down 18-10 with 3:27 left in the first after trailing by 12, and the energy in the building changed immediately.

“I liked starting so I played with a chip on my shoulder,” Portis said. “The last couple games I was hesitant to shoot. I gotta get that out my system. Probably just thinking too much and not playing the way the game is supposed to be played.”

Hitting his first six shots, he scored 13 in the first half, and three straight buckets to start the fourth gave the Bulls a slim lead, critical while Butler was on the bench.

“The biggest thing was putting two halves together, a complete game,” Portis said. “I feel like I did. I took good shots, I didn’t force anything on the offensive end. I let the game come to me. We got a big, well-needed win tonight.”

Butler finished with 23 points and seven assists in 37 minutes, but it wasn’t all isolation ball as the Bulls got him shots in different places, punctuated by several cuts to the basket, including a late one that resulted in a three-point play on his first possession midway through the fourth.

Sometimes the load appears to be too much for Butler, carrying an offensive load while keeping the other team’s best perimeter player in check on the other end.

But he put Hayward on punishment and holding him to five of 16 shooting and 14 points.

Whether it was a by-product of one leading the other or overall concentration on defense, it was likely their best performance of the season on that end, forcing 15 turnovers and keeping the Jazz to just 25 percent from three.

The only fly in the ointment was getting outrebounded 49-39, an aspect that kept the Jazz ahead until the third when the Bulls took their first lead at 49-48, a comeback after trailing by 12 early and looking pretty lifeless.

But the life came from the youth, as they showed their worth for a night, in a season where they don’t have many more opportunities to impress for the future.

 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are the playoffs in sight for the Bulls?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are the playoffs in sight for the Bulls?

On this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Seth Gruen and Ben Finfer join Chuck Garfien on the panel.

The Bulls win again. Do they dare think playoffs? Vincent Goodwill joins the guys to discuss.

Plus, they debate where the “Minneapolis Miracle” ranks amongst the greatest plays in NFL playoff history and if Tom Ricketts is right to say that Sammy Sosa needs to put everything on the table to rejoin the Cubs family.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

The time goes by fast for Zach LaVine, from tip-off to the time he’s subbed out for Denzel Valentine as part of his minute-restriction plan.

“It goes by really quick. I look up, I’m like man, it’s already seven minutes,” LaVine said. “But that’s why I’m trying to make the most of the 20 minutes, think I’m doing a good job so far. I set out to help in every way I can.”

For the damage he does in his limited time, it’s making the Bulls and their winning-restriction plan go to mush, as he put up 18 points with five rebounds, five assists and more importantly, more minutes will be on the horizon sooner rather than later. After the Bulls’ 119-111 win over the Miami Heat Monday at the United Center, one has to wonder if the Bulls are approaching a crossroads for the season—or if unfortunately for the front office, the checkpoint on the long-term plan has already been unwillingly passed to the point of no return.

At 17-27, the Bulls are, in a sense, where they didn’t want to be—straddling the line between going for a playoff spot or getting as bad as possible to get in the best possible position for the lottery.

They’re here because Kris Dunn is playing like a top-half point guard and Lauri Markkanen is performing like a top-three rookie, shooting the three with a volume that would be the best for a first-year player in NBA history—a perfect fit for Hoiberg’s system.

Markkanen is growing perhaps into the superstar they hope to draft in June while LaVine will do everything he can to prove he’s more than a max player but a legit superstar who can play winning basketball along with filling up a box score.

And they’re managing to win close games at a rate experienced teams usually do, playing with a poise and freedom that stemmed from low expectations and a 3-20 start.

“We knew they were on a winning streak and just tried to play hard,” Markkanen said after a 17-point, nine-rebound night. “And play unselfish like we always do. And we had much success, so that tells a lot.”

The Heat was in a similar position last season, starting out 10-31 before making a charge so strong the Bulls had to win every game down the stretch to secure the final playoff spot.

After a so-so start, the Heat are nearly on a 50-win pace with a similar roster and no one with the ceiling of LaVine or Markkanen—along with having to replace Dion Waiters’ scoring and swagger, as he’s out for the season with ankle surgery.

John Paxson took the reins this offseason and firmly made the decision to begin a painful and possibly long, rebuild. But when affordable acquisitions like Justin Holiday starts shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and torches the Heat for seven triples and 25 points, it makes then plan harder to execute.

When Nikola Mirotic sprinkles some pixie dust on his game before the start of the fourth quarter to go from being scoreless to scoring 18 in the last 12 minutes to close out their third straight win, it puts the pressure firmly on the front office to make a big decision, yet again.

“The thing we’re chasing is that we’re trying to continue to grow and get better,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Take steps in the right direction. That’s all we talk about. We’re not talking about what’s at stake.”

Hoiberg is keeping his eyes and ears away from the front office's plans, as it does him no good but to bunker down with his locker room and peck away at this record.

He may not be discussing it with his team, but LaVine said the team is watching the Eastern Conference standings, game-by-game. At six games behind eighth-seeded Detroit, there’s four teams between the Bulls and a playoff spot—while being four-and-a-half games behind the Orlando Magic at the cellar.

And with the Magic rumored to be going all-in on selling before the trade deadline, willing to unload Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, according to the New York Times, it’s clear they’re trying to cement themselves at the top of the lottery.

The Golden State Warriors are coming to the United Center in two days, and it’s likely the requisite beating will take place to quell some of the immediate optimism. But after that, the Bulls have some winnable contests that will likely have them right about where they are now, with each passing game lessening the likelihood of plummeting to the bottom.

It leaves Paxson and the front office in a precarious position, as the team is playing with more spirit and togetherness thus leading to praise the front office for its roster construction.

Trading a fourth-quarter performer like Mirotic would go over well in most circles, and although Mirotic is saying all the right things about having the most fun in his NBA career and wanting to play more with Markkanen, he still wants out and he prefers to go West.

One could see the Bulls taking a deal from the Utah Jazz in the form of expiring contract Joe Johnson and a protected first-round pick, then possibly buying out Johnson and letting him go to a contender with the pick being the crown jewel of the deal.

The longer he stays, the more games the Bulls win, the harder this becomes—and one has to ask about the futures of Robin Lopez and Holiday—who would be valuable as a reserve for a playoff team.

But would the Bulls trade anybody for the sole purpose of getting worse in the meantime? Hard to say but hard to envision Paxson doing anything less than what he deems equal value.

This season started with drama, proceeded as planned but took a turn towards something unexpected—and rather quickly.

And like LaVine’s minutes, the Bulls will have to make another decision because deadlines are approaching faster than even they could foresee.