With the Bulls on the ropes, Sixers won't be overconfident


With the Bulls on the ropes, Sixers won't be overconfident

This isn't how the Bulls and their fanbase envisoned the 2011-12 playoff run.

It doesn't really matter whether the fault lies with the injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah or any other factor. The fact of the matter is, the Bulls are down 3-1 and facing elimination on their home court Tuesday night.

And to an 8-seed, no less.

The Bulls claimed the NBA's top record in the regular season despite a plethora of injuries while the Sixers needed wins in the final week of play to sneak into the postseason.

"We had to play our way into the playoffs," Sixers coach Doug Collins said prior to Tuesday's contest. "Three weeks ago, the Bulls are sitting here with a great chance to win the championship and we didn't even know if we were gonna be in the playoffs or not.

"That's how quickly things can change. And things can change just as quickly the other way. We know that."

The Sixers have the Bulls on their ropes. It's win or go home time for Chicago, but Collins' squad isn't taking anything lightly, even though it's only Game 5.

"When I was broadcasting, I always called this a human nature game," Collins said. "The team that's up 3-1, if you get down, do you have that fight to get back in the game to do the things you have to do to win games like we've won in this series? Or do you settle into that human nature of 'if we don't win tonight, we got a couple more games left.'

"That's why I said these games are games where you really have to focus in. It has to be as important tonight to us as it is to the Bulls."

Philadelphia is one of the youngest teams in the playoffs and their roster is filled with players who don't have much experience -- if any -- closing out playoff series. It's been a while for Collins, too, as he hasn't won a playoff series as a head coach since the 1988-89 season.

But like any good coach, Collins knows he has to keep things on as even a keel as possible.

"We have a young group and I want to manage the extremes -- the highs and the lows," said Collins, who got his first head coaching gig with the Bulls and was a standout player at Illinois State University. "I thought we were good in Games 3 and 4.

"We won the games, but I didn't think we were on a parade. I didn't think we were on a joy ride. We found a way to grind a couple games out and we knew how much we had to do. So I just tried to keep guys on that kind of path, especially with some of our younger guys."

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California. 

LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be. 

But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks. 

"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.

"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."

LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk. 

LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime. 

"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."

The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks. 

Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player. 

Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides.