Bulls

Bulls get what they want in matchup with LeBron, Cavaliers

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Bulls get what they want in matchup with LeBron, Cavaliers

 

MILWAUKEE—This is what Joakim Noah wanted, a trip to Cleveland.

It’s what the NBA likely wanted, and for once there will be no outside accusations of league manipulation in terms of making sure Bulls and Cavs happened.

The two teams who love to hate each other in the East, in a matchup that seemed preordained from the moment LeBron James announced he was taking his talents back to Ohio and reinforced once James the executive pulled off some roster-changing moves to ensure the Cavaliers would have a championship-ready roster moves, bringing in Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert via trade.

“You know what? I never thought I'd say this, but I'm very excited to go to Cleveland."

Of course that was Noah, who found his game at the right time in Game 6 against the scrappy, pushy Milwaukee Bucks with 11 points and 10 rebounds, giving credit to assistant coach Ed Pinckney for the work they put in during the two days leading to Game 6.

[MORE: Bulls storm into matchup with Cavaliers with laugher in Milwaukee]

By the time halftime rolled around in Milwaukee, you can bet the Bulls’ thoughts shifted to Cleveland and the inevitability of said matchup. They can drop the niceties about not thinking about the Cavaliers, and focusing solely on the team in front of them.

After Game 6, they sounded like they had a full scouting report on their rivals, starting with the absence of Kevin Love—whose shoulder injury will cause him to miss the entire series, leading many to believe the Bulls and Cavaliers are now even, despite the Bulls’ struggles with the Bucks in round one.

“It's a little different when you take the range shooting 4 out,” Derrick Rose said. “You don't know what they're gonna do or what sets they're gonna (run) or strategy they're gonna have. It's gonna take going up there and playing them. When you don't have a player like Kevin Love, it's something to worry about a little bit.”

After two shaky games and a shaky finish to Game 4 where he let Jerryd Bayless sneak behind him for a game-winning layup, Rose is back staring down that old nemesis who always seems to be in his way in James.

[WATCH: Antetokounmpo tackles Dunleavy, gets tossed from Game 6]

James is the main reason the Bulls can’t play the “we took them too lightly” card that seemed to be within reach during their slip-ups against the Bucks. When a man puts you out of the playoffs seemingly every other year, you can’t forget him, you can’t avoid him.

James averaged 28.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists in four games against the Bulls this season, so whatever slippage people think exists with James in his 12th season, it doesn’t show on the stat sheet.

“Just make it hard on him. I'm not gonna sit here and say we have the game plan to stop him,” Rose said. “But he's gonna bring it. He's gonna play hard. He's won championships so you gotta give it to him. He's a hell of a player. So when we play against him, we just gotta make it tough. Nothing easy for him, make sure he sees bodies.”

They’ll need Rose and Jimmy Butler at their best and most efficient, and one wonders if it’s too much to ask those two to be superstars every night against James and Kyrie Irving—especially with the damning evidence the Bulls presented in terms of inconsistent performances against the Bucks.

“We know they're a great team. We're gonna have to play very well for 48 minutes,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We're gonna have to be ready from the start. They're well-rested, they've been sitting there.

“They have a lot of weapons, it's a lot more than LeBron and Kyrie. They play very well as a team, share the ball. They've got length at the rim, good competitors. We're gonna have to be ready.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

How sweet would it be for these Bulls to put away these Cavaliers? The players won’t say, but the eyes of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, two players who’ve had to endure James sending them away for the summer three times before, can’t lie.

Gibson wants to make sure every possible thing that can work in the Bulls’ favor will, starting with the famous “limit the distractions” speech.

“Every game is different; especially in the playoffs everybody adjusts; like Thibs said everybody has to sacrifice, focus on doing the right thing." Like Derrick said, "put away the poison. Take away everything your friends, your family, the girls, you have to put all that stuff away and focus on the team.”

As they say all the time, no excuses, because they’re showing up at the door of a bad man ready to send them back away with a bad feeling.

Let’s get it on.

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

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AP

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

The Bulls made headlines on Tuesday when VP John Paxson announced that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne would be entering the rotation, thus continuing the youth movement in Chicago.

On the surface the moves make sense. The 24-year-old Nwaba, the 25-year-old Felicio and the 23-year-old Cameron Payne will be replacing 28-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Robin Lopez and 25-year-old Jerian Grant. The Bulls want to see what they have in these younger players who haven't played much; they already know what they have in Lopez and Holiday, and Grant (like the other two) is under contract through next year.

OK, got that? Here's why they're making the move: they're sitting 8th in the NBA Lottery standings and really want to move into the top-5 to give themselves a chance at what should be a loaded front-end of the draft class. It's pretty obvious, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either named Gar Forman, John Paxson or Fred Hoiberg.

And here's why: On Wednesday Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the NBA for comments he made on a podcast regarding tanking. The Mavericks are currently 18-40, the third worst record in the NBA. This comes a season after they finished 33-49, netting them the No. 9 pick that turned into talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So when Cuban was asked about the best interests of his Dallas team, which touts young talent but clearly isn't headed for the postseason in 2018, he said this on the House Call with Dr. J Podcast:

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, 'Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability."

Cuban isn't wrong, and the Mavericks sure as hell aren't the only team tanking. But to come right now and admit that losing is the team's best option wasn't, as Cuban predicted, going to sit well with the league office.

Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo with the fine that said Cuban's comments "which concerned his perspective on the team's competitive success this season" were "detrimental to the NBA."

So while the Bulls are going about their business in trying to lose as many games down the stretch as possible, don't expect anyone to admit it's the reason behind their personnel moves. There are 600,000 reasons why.

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

NBA general managers were fully expecting to see Miles Bridges declare for the 2017 draft after a solid, but unspectacular freshman season at Michigan State. Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s top prospects, and his impressive leaping ability led to a number of highlight reel plays for Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

Problem is, Bridges didn’t show much versatility to his offensive game because of an inconsistent outside shot and inability to create shots off the dribble. Bridges probably would have been a late lottery pick last year on athletic talent alone, but to his credit, he decided to go back to Michigan State for his sophomore season and work on some of his weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Bridges, he really hasn’t shown much improvement year to year. Yes, he’s leading the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 89%, but his other numbers are basically flat from season to season. Bridges averaged 16.9 points a year ago, 17.1 this season. He shot .486 from the field in 2016-17, .477 this year. Even with all the work he put in on his 3 point shooting, his percentage has dropped slightly this season, from .389 to .376. Rebounding is also down slightly, from 8.3 to 6.8. 

Bottom line, Bridges is once again projected as a late lottery pick.

How does he fit for the Bulls? It’s no secret small forward and center are the two positions of need heading into the 2018 draft, and the 6-7 Bridges would give the Bulls another athletic frontcourt player who fits the pace and space game Fred Hoiberg prefers. Bridges could be a real weapon running the floor with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for alley-oop dunks, and he should continue to improve as a 3 point shooter.

The Bulls are hoping to land a top 5 pick to add one of the elite players in this draft, and unless the Pelicans drop into the late lottery, Bridges will probably be gone by the time that selection comes up. He’s probably a bit of a reach in the 6 to 10 range, but if positional need and athletic potential are the most important factors for the Bulls, Miles Bridges could be the choice if they don’t improve their position in the current lottery watch standings.

Personally, I would prefer either Kentucky’s Kevin Knox or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) over Miles Bridges as a small forward prospect, but all 3 players offer different skill sets that could be helpful to a young, developing team like the Bulls.

The dream scenario would be drafting a young center like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba with a top 5 pick, then coming back to add one of those 3 small forward prospects with the 1st rounder they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. We’ll all have to wait until the lottery is held on May 15th to see if the Bulls are in position to add two more foundation pieces to their rebuilding project.