Bulls

Bulls once again can't finish, fall to young Timberwolves

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Bulls once again can't finish, fall to young Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS — The Bulls have found themselves in this position many times this season, and if their memory was working, going back 24 hours was enough to jog it.

In other words, grab the Mylanta.

It's a full-blown trend, as this Bulls team doesn't appear to have whatever "it" is in terms of closing games.

Whether it's mental fortitude, bad luck, bad execution or any form of adjectives you choose to select, the Bulls can't get it done, and Saturday was another painful example, as they fell to the young Minnesota Timberwolves, 112-105.

They now seem to cower in the big moments when they used to rise up in adverse circumstances. The old Bulls used to bathe in it, now they’re drowning in the dirty bath water, evidenced by allowing a 12-0 run after leading 105-100.

“The theme of this trip is finding ways to close out games,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We had a five-point lead. You’ve got to find a way to do everything you can, get stops and get the ball back.”

[MORE BULLS: Watch a replay of Bulls-Timberwolves]

But even Hoiberg has to wonder where his team’s psyche is through this 2-4 road trip, as the All-Star break is looming and Hoiberg has to keep a firm handle on ensuring the Bulls don’t mentally check out with adversity.

“You can’t think about what happened the last game. You put it behind you, you learn from it,” he said. “ We talked about it tonight, we’ll talk about it tomorrow. It’s a tough stretch. It’s gonna take a lot of mental toughness to get some momentum going before the break.”

The relative good news surrounding Jimmy Butler only lasted but for so long, as he went back to Chicago for further evaluation on his left knee. Ditto for Mike Dunleavy, who made his season debut after back surgery and played 14 minutes.

Those tend to be forgotten when you lose 11 of 16.

Derrick Rose’s two free throws marked the final time the Bulls saw the ball go through the hoop, only there was nearly three full minutes left to play.

“Yeah, this is the first time, yeah," said Rose, referring to the Bulls’ lack of rising above circumstances, considering they’d done it to varying degrees in the past few years.

[MORE BULLS: Bulls breathe sigh of relief with Jimmy Butler's knee strain]

Rose scored 18 with 10 assists and five rebounds but missed 14 of his 20 shots, including a few inside shots late as the Bulls came up empty on their last seven possessions offensively.

“I like the way we were playing defense earlier in the year when we were closing games because of our defense and the offense was behind. It kind of switched up where it’s the defense that we lack right now towards the end.”

But in this new day, Andrew Wiggins took over late as the athletic bigs handled things early, scoring six straight after the game was tied with two minutes remaining.

Wiggins finished with 21, while Karl-Anthony Towns scored 26 with 17 rebounds and Gorgui Dieng scored 24 with 13 rebounds and seven assists, the common denominator being athleticism and fresh legs, which the Wolves have in spades.

Bobby Portis scored 15 off 7-for-9 shooting but only grabbed three rebounds in 28 minutes.

“They controlled the glass tonight,” Hoiberg said. “Our shots weren’t (bad). Give them credit, they made tough shots.”

“You gotta keep working at it. You put the ball in your playmakers' hands, and you try to get good looks and good shots where we wanted.”

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The two young bigs nearly out-rebounded the entire Bulls team, combining for 30 rebounds to the Bulls’ 31. The Timberwolves shot 52 percent from the field and only turned it over nine times.

“Rebounds and once again miscommunication on the defensive end,” Rose said. “When we were up seven or five points, they got fast-break points from our misses. And we weren’t able to do the same because we were taking the ball out of the net."

The Bulls were supposed to have some guile and experience against the youngest team in the league, and neither team led by more than six for most of the night as the lead changed hands more times than you can count.

When Rose found E'Twaun Moore for a corner triple midway through the fourth, giving the Bulls a 99-96 lead, one would’ve thought the tide turned.

Pau Gasol could've tied the game late with a triple from the top of the key but missed, finishing with 25 and eight rebounds.

The All-Star break can't get here quick enough, but the reality check has just arrived at the table.

Who's paying?

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.