Bulls

Bucks stun flat Bulls, send series back to Milwaukee

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Bucks stun flat Bulls, send series back to Milwaukee

Joakim Noah walked up the sideline, yelling to himself as he headed to the bench, unable to figure out why the Milwaukee Bucks were methodically pulling away in a game that on paper should’ve been an easy win for the Bulls.

But as the Bucks have gained more and more confidence throughout this series, Game 5’s 94-88 decision was only shocking if you took into account things that wouldn’t faze either side.

The Bulls returning home to the United Center, a place the Bucks don’t feel intimidated by. Or the news about the Cleveland Cavaliers losing Kevin Love and J.R. Smith for the conference semifinals.

What mattered is the Bucks’ fearlessness and length and growing confidence, illustrated by the Bulls’ panic—or weary legs, according to their counterparts-- in the fourth quarter compared to the Bucks’ coolness.

Again jumping out to a 9-0 lead on the Bulls, stunning a crowd that was ready to look ahead and celebrate, forcing the Bulls to play from behind essentially all night, squashing a Bulls’ confident gameplan that didn’t revolve around “turn the ball over 28 times”.

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They cut that in half with just 13. But unfortunately, the open shots they hit in Game 4 were nowhere to be found in Game 5, as they shot 34 percent from the field, punctuated by their horrid 7-for-30 performance in the fourth quarter, when they were desperately trying to string possessions together.

“We didn’t make shots,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It was turnovers last game; We got the turnovers down. But then we couldn’t make our threes. It’s a make of miss league. When you don’t make it, it’s not going to look good.”

It was an ugly performance from there, as they shot four of 22 from 3-point range, as the Bucks were content with Derrick Rose launch seven of them without success, part of a five for 20 evening.

Rose was met with a wall of Bucks’ defenders all evening, as he didn’t commit the fatal error at the buzzer—he just made a bevy of them all night (six turnovers) and struggled with his shot.

His partner in “MVP” chants, Jimmy Butler, didn’t fare much better, shooting five for 21, compiling a nice stat line of 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but he knew that was misleading.

[WATCH: Bulls know they need to learn from their mistakes]

"I’m supposed to be the primetime defensive guy and I haven’t guarded a soul,” Butler said. “I’m worried about offense too much."

Pau Gasol had his first primetime game of the series, with 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but didn’t have much help. Bench scorers Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic didn’t impact the game, negated by the Bucks’ length and size the Bulls haven’t been able to reasonably counter.

Khris Middleton again quietly had a forceful night, scoring 21 on 16 shots, one of the few Bucks who shot well as they mustered only 18 points in the fourth, shooting 39 percent but remarkably kept the Bulls at bay. The Bulls planned to leave Zaza Pachulia open and he made them pay, hitting a couple circus midrange shots that quelled Bulls’ runs, and OJ Mayo incited the wrath of the Bulls’ crowd and the players, getting into a couple scrums that could’ve redirected the Bulls’ focus.

After Butler and Noah scored inside with 8:32 left to cut the Bucks’ lead to three, they were expected to fold.

But they regrouped, quickly pushed the lead back to 86-77 a minute later after Noah missed two point-blank layups and survived another Bull run a few minutes later, turning them back with their relentless defense led by Giannis Antetokoumnpo and John Henson’s shot blocking until the Bulls had nothing left.

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“Just growing. Growing up,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “Going through these games in the regular season (was) a dress rehearsal.”

And now they’re no longer naïve or fearful, able to absorb the emotion the Bulls inconsistently dished out while staying consistent.

Michael Carter-Williams looked Rose right in the face, repeatedly taking any and everybody to the basket for his 22 points, to go along with his nine assists, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Not even an ankle sprain that left him questionable in the third quarter was going to stop him, as he returned, completing a night where all 10 of his field goals were in the Bulls’ paint.

 “He hit a lot of tough shots,” Rose said. “Shots that he hit, I tried not to foul, I put my arms up and he kept banking them. It’s the first game he hit that many shots. Tough shots but he made them, so I’ll make an adjustment next time.”

They knew they were going home no matter what after Game 5, they just made the decision to take the Bulls back to Milwaukee with them for what should be a raucous Game 6 Wednesday night.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.