Bulls

Bulls get another 'best chance' to beat LeBron James

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Bulls get another 'best chance' to beat LeBron James

May 27, 2011.

Behind 22-year-old Derrick Rose, who three weeks earlier had been named the league's youngest MVP, the top-seeded Bulls had pushed their Game 5 lead against the Miami Heat to 12 with 3:35 to play. Facing elimination, Tom Thibodeau's group, which had allowed the East's most efficient offense just 64 points in the game's first 44 minutes, looked poised to send the series back to Miami with some momentum on their side for the first time since a Game 1 victory.

Then LeBron James happened. Again.

James split a pair of free throws. 76-65. Then a transition pass to Dwyane Wade for two. 77-69. Then a 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Rose. 77-72. Then a dish to Wade for a 3-pointer and foul. 79-76. Then a left wing triple — his third of the night — off a Udonis Haslem screen. 79-79. Then a pull-up 18-footer from the top of the key. 81-79, Heat lead with 25 seconds remaining.

In a matter of seven possessions that spanned a little more than three minutes, James carved up the league's top defense, accounting for 15 of Miami's 17 points (nine points and assists on six Wade points) to give the Heat their first lead since the middle of the first quarter. James then capped off his memorable performance — and cemented himself as Chicago's public enemy No. 1 — by getting a hand on a potential game-tying Rose 3-point attempt at the buzzer, sending him and "The Heatles" to their first of what would become four straight NBA Finals appearances — two of which they would win.

In a vacuum, James' performance that night doesn't stand out historically. Though he hadn't yet won a championship, James' playoff resume already included his historic night in Detroit, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Orlando and career postseason averages of 28.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists. He had two MVPs in his trophy case, seven All-Star appearances, had knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs in five games the year before and, at 26, was entering the prime of his career alongside a star-studded cast. A performance such as that had almost become expected from the game's best player.

But that Game 5 ending was a prime example, a microcosm of sorts, of what four years later has come full-circle for the Bulls: that even when everything is going right, LeBron James is going to be a major obstacle.

Consider that 2011 Bulls team. Rose was the league's MVP. Thibodeau, the NBA's Coach of the Year by a wide margin, had coached the Bulls to the league's best record and most efficient defense. Joakim Noah was a budding 25-year-old defensive juggernaut. Carlos Boozer, for all the headaches he'd cause in a few years time, averaged 17.5 points on 51-percent shooting and 9.6 rebounds after signing a $76 million deal that offseason with the Bulls, who had missed out on James and Wade earlier. Luol Deng (17.4 ppg) was a year away from two straight All-Star appearances and the backbone of Thibodeau's basketball philosophy. And Kyle Korver had connected on better than 41 percent of his triples as part of the original Bench Mob, which also included Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer.

[NBA PLAYOFFS: Bulls must make most of their second unit]

They found themselves with home-court advantage against a Heat team they had swept in the regular season. Miami touted the star-studded trio of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, who 10 months earlier had joined forces in the wildest offseason in NBA history. But in that playoff series the Heat also started 32-year-old Mike Bibby — who would retire a year later — and Joel Anthony's 2.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. The only bench contributions they received came from a 30-year-old Udonis Haslem (who missed most of the season with a torn ligament in his foot), Mike Miller and third-year guard Mario Chalmers.

For the first time since James' arrival to the league in 2003, the Bulls were in position to dethrone his team. They had failed a year earlier as the East's No. 8 seed, falling expectedly in five games to the top-seeded Cavaliers. But the arrival of Thibodeau, combined with Rose's jump to stardom and the aforementioned supporting cast gave cause for hope. Instead, James averaged 25.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and added 2.4 steals and 1.8 blocks in more than 45 minutes per game. As he had done in 2010, he made quick work of the Bulls without even needing a Game 6 to do so. Chicago's best chance to knock off James had vanished, just like that.

Until now.

Four years after missing out on their chance to vault past James in the playoffs, a healthy Bulls team touting its most complete and talented roster since Thibodeau arrived finds itself pitted against a shorthanded Cavaliers team expecting their leader to do even more of the heavy lifting. All of a sudden, the Bulls have another "best chance."

With Kevin Love sidelined 4-to-6 months due to a separated shoulder and J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games, the Bulls, much like 2011, seemingly have advantages in every category outside of LeBron and his sidekick — then Wade, now Kyrie Irving. Noah and Pau Gasol vs. Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson? Advantage Bulls. Jimmy Butler vs. Iman Shumpert, and later in the series Smith? Advantage Bulls. The benches? Advantage Bulls, and it's not close. The seasoned veteran Thibodeau with 45 playoff games under his belt vs. first-year NBA head coach David Blatt? Advantage Bulls.

[MORE: Bulls will be at full strength for series with Cavs]

Yet despite all those advantages — similar advantages the Bulls had in 2011 — James has remained the constant the Bulls haven't figured out. Even with an All-Star Butler and a rejuvenated Gasol, in addition to the improved bench and a confident Rose, James gives the Cavaliers both the best player in the series and an intangible upper hand. Noah has been vocal in his desire to get another chance at James in the playoffs, saying earlier this season he'd "love" to meet the Cavaliers in the postseason.

But that desire goes both ways, as James has always ascended his play against the Bulls. In 15 career playoff games against Chicago, James has averaged 27.0 points on 49-percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists. When it comes to the playoff version of James, everything else gets thrown out, no matter how substantial the advantage.

Blatt will have to make considerate rotation changes with Love sidelined and Smith out for two games, one of which might be James seeing time at power forward. There's a million different ways the series could go — remember, the Bulls won each of the last two Game 1s against James before losing four straight — but the one given will be a postseason LeBron ready to dominate at a moment's notice, like he did in the final four minutes of Game 5 in 2011. Even when the Bulls outwardly have everything in their favor, there's nothing to account for the performance James could, and likely will, put on. As much as it's Bulls vs. Cavs, it's more so Bulls vs. LeBron. Again.

Four years later, the situation is comparable. Will the results be?

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”