Bulls

Cavs' chances against Bulls could hinge on Irving's foot

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Cavs' chances against Bulls could hinge on Irving's foot

The Cavaliers understood their margin for error was minimal. Playing without Kevin Love against a playoff-tested Bulls team would require, among other factors, near-perfect execution from LeBron James and, in his playoff debut, Kyrie Irving. Though a pair of trades in January that sent them three key role players had kick-started the Eastern Conference's hottest team, a third leading scorer on the bench meant more productivity needed from their top two players.

The latter didn’t occur Friday night in Game 3, with Irving struggling through an aggravated foot injury that now puts his health status for the rest of the series in question as the Cavaliers face a must-win on Sunday, trailing the Bulls 2-1.

Irving appeared to roll his ankle in the first quarter, noticeably limping during that opening 12 minutes in which he attempted just one shot and failed to show off his lightning-quick aggressiveness that had dissected the Bulls’ defense through the first two games of the series.

And while that limp faded away over the course of the game, Irving’s passive play did not. The point guard who had tallied 51 points on 32 shots in Games 1 and 2 rarely had the ball in his hands in the second half, at one point in the third quarter stood in the right corner on back-to-back possessions without getting a touch.

[RELATED: Cavs can live with Rose's game-winning shot]

After the game Cavaliers head coach David Blatt revealed that Irving had aggravated the foot injury and seemed pleasantly surprised that his All-Star point guard was able to push through the injury, logging 38 minutes despite shooting 3-for-13 and not handing out a single assist in the loss.

Irving then delved further, saying he had suffered the injury in Game 2 of the Cavs’ first-round series against the Celtics, meaning the foot has been bothering him for more than two weeks. Though Irving did push through in the second half, logging 22 of a possible 24 minutes, he admitted that he “(used) myself as a decoy at times” and couldn’t get the burst he wanted going toward the basket or lift on his shot after aggravating the foot in the first quarter. He also wasn't effective defensively, with Blatt opting against using him on Rose, who scored 24 second-half points.

Irving said he doesn’t plan to miss any time with the lingering injury, though if a similar occurrence happens one has to wonder how effective he can be against a Bulls backcourt that hit its stride in the second half and will take plenty of momentum into Sunday’s monumental Game 4.

But Irving also understands the situation in front of him. Without Love, and without a bench to match the Bulls’ second unit in both minutes and productivity, Irving is no longer just an asset for the Cavaliers. He’s a necessity.

Matthew Dellavedova logged 16 crucial minutes, scoring 10 points. The Cavs also got back the services of J.R. Smith, who scored 14 points – including a game-tying 3-pointer with 11 seconds left – in his return from a two-game suspension.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Neither are Irving. And neither would be able to maintain the level of scoring and overall success that a healthy Irving brings to the table, despite the Cavaliers being one miracle shot from Rose away from sending Game 3 to overtime.

“I don’t make any excuses for myself. For me to go out there, obviously I was just trying to play it through it as best I can and I’m still going to continue to do that,” Irving said after the game. “I’m not going to hang my head on having a bad foot or anything like that. I’ve got to have that attitude and mind set to go out there and compete for my brothers.”

Added Blatt: "Kyrie has been playing hurt. He has been giving us all he has and will continue to do that."

LeBron James, who took on the tall task of trying to beat the Bulls on the road without his partner-in-crime at full health, struggled with the added responsibility. His jump shot continued to fail him, as he went just 8-for-25 from the field, and he committed seven of the Cavaliers' 11 turnovers, which the Bulls turned into 14 points. His effect on the game didn't feel like 27 points and 14 assists, largely because Irving wasn't there to complement him.

[WATCH: Rose drains buzzer beater to send Bulls home victorious in Game 3]

But James, unlike Irving, has been here before. Friday was James' 165th career playoff game, and he knows the Cavaliers and Irving won't get any free passes because of the latter's injury. The Bulls smell blood in the water, and with less than 48 hours to prepare for a must-win game the four-time MVP is confident Irving will do what he has to do to get the series back on track.

“No one’s going to feel sorry for us. No one feels sorry for Kyrie because he’s hurt. And we’re not going to make any excuses," James said. "If he’s on the court he has to make plays. And I have to help him, he has to help me, and we have to help our team.

"The injuries, obviously I know from a competitive standpoint it’s killing him inside because I know what type of competitor he is and I know what type of teammate he is, and he wants to do everything great for his teammates. But the situation is what it is. He’s a great competitor. He gave us 40 minutes on one foot. As frustrating as it is for him, he’ll do it again.

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.