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Bulls flip the fourth quarter script to secure 'must-win' game

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Bulls flip the fourth quarter script to secure 'must-win' game

The same story was playing out Thursday at the United Center. This time the Bulls wrote a different ending.

Leading by 10 after three quarters against the favored Clippers, Fred Hoiberg's group began that ominous fourth quarter that had troubled them in each of the past three games in similar fashion, with Los Angeles opening the period with a 12-2 run that erased the lead.

During a three-game stretch in which the Bulls had been outscored 102-70 in the fourth quarter, Thursday night's would have been the worst of the bunch. The Clippers had played in Milwaukee the previous night, Blake Griffin had been ejected early in the second half for a hard foul on Taj Gibson and Doc Rivers was rolling his comeback dice with a lineup consisting of NBA misfit toys in Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Austin Rivers; the Clippers bench entered Thursday shooting 39.5 percent from the field, second worst in the NBA.

But the early returns were positive. Rivers buried a 3-pointer from the right corner to get the run going. Wesley Johnson connected on another from the left wing to cut the deficit to six, then Smith buried a pair of triples, prompting a second timeout during that span from Hoiberg. The Los Angeles triples were sprinkled in between another offensive lull from the Bulls in which they missed 10 straight shots following a Derrick Rose runner off the glass to begin the period.

The Bulls were in the midst of deja vu at the United Center, a place where they had lost two straight for the first time since last January. Making matters worse, Rivers still had his big guns — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan — resting on his bench ready to close out the comeback.

The remaining 7:29 certainly wasn't pretty — a theme throughout the night — but as Hoiberg correctly observed: "Our guys found a way."

[MORE BULLS: Bulls survive Clippers' charge, end three-game losing streak]

A Jimmy Butler jumper gave the Bulls a two-point lead, and Gibson's thunderous putback dunk off an Aaron Brooks missed triple gave the Bulls breathing room in the form of a four-point lead. Los Angeles hit 3s on three of their next four possessions, but all came in response to Bulls baskets, including triples from Rose and Pau Gasol, who led the Bulls with 24 points and three 3-pointers.

As if Smith's pair of 3-pointers weren't a sign of more fourth-quarter trouble (Smith is shooting 28.6 percent from deep this season) then Paul's 32-foot triple with the shot clock winding down to pull the Clippers within three, 78-75, was. But Brooks responded with three free throws after a clumsy Paul shooting foul, and the Bulls played two transition opportunities perfectly on defense, resulting in a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute offensive foul and missed Paul layup with a chance to get within one possession in the final two minutes.

A rose floater off the glass pushed the lead to six, and the Bulls withstood yet another 3-pointer from Johnson, with Paul's triple attempt at the buzzer hitting off the back iron.

The Bulls' troubles weren't solved on a night when they shot 35 percent from the field and committed 11 turnovers. They also nearly lost a game in which their opponent shot 3-for-23 in a quarter and played without their All-NBA power forward the final 18 minutes. The Bulls again were outscored in the final stanza, 26-19.

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But for a night, numbers didn't matter to the Bulls. Another tally in the win column did.

"Here we are again, fighting for our life. And I think now what’s most important is to build on it, minimize those type of runs against us in critical times, especially down in the fourth quarter," Gasol said. "It was a must-win, otherwise we’d be talking here about four (losses) in a row and (it's) just not a good place to be."

It was a mask-less Rose that led the charge. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, Rose, who went scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting in the first half, forgot to put on the mask protecting his face after orbital surgery. Rose kept the mask off and scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting with a pair of assists. Gibson, making his second straight start, scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Joakim Noah continued to show energy, making the most out of a grind-it-out game built for his style with 13 rebounds, two assists and a pair of blocks. Butler added 14 points and eight assists and didn't turn the ball over in 37 minutes.

Though the Bulls were two games out of the top spot in the East and less than one-third done with their regular season, Thursday felt like a must-win, as Gasol alluded to. And while questions will still arise about how the Bulls offense is responding to Hoiberg's philosophies, as well as rotation questions after another quiet night from Nikola Mirotic (five points and 11 rebounds in 14 minutes), for one night the Bulls flipped the script and busted out of a funk that had plagued them in each of their last three losses.

"We had to get this one. This was a huge game for us after losing three in a row, including a couple on our home floor," Hoiberg said. "We had to find a way to win a game. It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to get the win."

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.