Bulls

Bulls: Rose, Butler rebound from ugly start, show their importance

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Bulls: Rose, Butler rebound from ugly start, show their importance

The worst nightmare and greatest feeling of optimism for the Bulls was on full display in Game 2 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Consider the imagery.

Those long, drawn-out scoring droughts that can be deadly against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Round 2 juxtaposed with Jimmy Butler catching fire in the fourth quarter and Derrick Rose recognizing it, making sure to be aggressive enough to have his presence felt but not domineering enough to take Butler out of his rhythm.

The delicate dance the backcourt will walk in this postseason will likely play the biggest part in their fortunes, as no matter how Rose looked in Game 1, Game 2 was a reminder he’s in his seventh game back from knee surgery — it just so happens to be in the high-pressure, no-excuses environment of the playoffs.

“When you’re missing shots, you have to do other things to help the team,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Whether it’s playing defense or making plays, I thought Derrick did that. He got lost in the game and started doing other things then found his offensive rhythm.”

[SHOP: Buy a short-sleeve Derrick Rose jersey]

The duo combined for 36 of the Bulls’ 52 second-half points after a near-disastrous start — the kind they can’t afford to have from this point forward. Rose went scoreless in the first half, missing all seven of his shot attempts while Butler missed his first six 3-point attempts.

“First half, I was missing shots,” Rose said. “I was just trying to get everybody into the game. We went up one at halftime. The second half, it’s a different game. It’s kind of like the restart button where you forget about the first half and just go out and play.”

No one would ever accuse Rose of hesitating, so it was no surprise when he unexpectedly received a kickout pass from Mike Dunleavy, he looked down before stepping back to launch a triple — where finally he and the ball were on the same accord.

A few possessions later, the crevices of a ridiculously tough Bucks defense provided just enough sunlight for Rose to slide through and get a lefty layup to fall, right before he tossed a crosscourt lob pass to Butler for a layup that signaled the Bulls finally finding their offensive rhythm.

For Butler, it didn’t take much for him to catch the feeling Rose had in the third quarter of Game 1 — having the ball on a string, the game in your hands and knowing no one can truly stop you on a given night.

[MORE: Butler's 31-point performance sends Bulls to 2-0 series lead over Bucks]

“I think I took a lot of bad shots that happened to go in,” said Butler, who shot 10 for 19 from the field for a game-high 31 points and nine rebounds.

But Butler’s emergence is the strongest reminder that Rose doesn’t have to do it all by himself anymore, which he certainly has appeared to recognize given his strong floor game. Rose’s nine assists were his 11th playoff game with nine or more, and he didn’t turn the ball over at all in the second half.

“He definitely makes it a lot easier,” Butler said. “When he’s on the floor, people pay attention to him a lot more than they do me. So all I have to do is step up and make my shots.”

Rose’s jumper with less than a minute remaining complemented Butler’s fourth-quarter explosion where Butler scored 14, and quietly, is averaging 28 points on 55 percent shooting in the first two games this series.

“Huge. Huge. It’s always a plus when you got a guy that talented and confident in his game,” said Rose of Butler. “We’ve seen him put the work in. And he’s actually out there showing that it’s paying off. If anything, it pushes us as a team to work on our game individually and with everyone doing that, it gives us a good chance to win.”

The Bulls still shot just 37 percent in the second half, but Rose and Butler combined to go 11-for-18 — meaning their teammates hit just five of their 25 attempts after halftime.

“We’re playing the game the right way, and that will get guys their shots,” Butler said. “Any night someone can score 30. All I have to do is step up and make my shots.”

It’s a reminder they need to play more to develop more continuity, because they’ll need it sooner rather than later.

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.