Central Division no longer a cakewalk with Pacers' presence


Central Division no longer a cakewalk with Pacers' presence

Even with an off day before Friday's game against the Bucks, beyond Derrick Rose's postgame vow and the curious late-game Brian Scalabrine go-ahead shot attempt in the clutch (not to mention the fact that Scalabrine, a deep reserve, replaced Carlos Boozer, even with Taj Gibson unavailable), expect there to be some reverberations from the Bulls' loss Wednesday to the Pacers. Of course, there will probably be the usual proclamations about moving on, the defeat being in the past and the team's focus being on another Central Division opponent in Milwaukee -- let alone Sunday's showdown in Miami -- but one thing is clear: Indiana is no pushover.

At the beginning of last season, the class of the Central was supposed to be the Bulls and the Bucks, with not much perceived separation between the two. But as Milwaukee endured a multitude of injuries and free-agent acquisitions failed to jell, the Bulls exceeded expectations and ran away with the division en route to earning the top overall seed in the postseason and going to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Meanwhile, the Pacers struggled at the outset and following an early-season loss at the United Center, veteran head coach Jim O'Brien was dismissed, replaced by young Frank Vogel. As interim head coach, Vogel shepherded his youthful squad into the playoffs -- but not before handing the Bulls their only divisional loss of the season -- as the East's eighth seed, where they engaged in a tougher-than-expected first-round series with the Bulls. While they went down in five games, the tenor of the matchup planted the seeds for Wednesday's clash.

"They try to play physical," Derrick Rose said afterward, in a somber Bulls locker room. "Theyre a very good team. Last spring, I think in the fourth quarter, they knew exactly what they were doing they didnt know. They were still trying to find their identity as a team. Now, they work from inside. Give it to their big men and see what they can create.

Added Ronnie Brewer: "They added some pieces. Theyve got a year under their belt playing under their coach. Theyre just a better team. Theyre playing team basketball, theyre executing on both ends of the floor and you can really tell because theyre winning games that theyre supposed to win."

"Some of the balls that we thought that we were going to come up with took a bounce for the Pacers and it's a testament to their hustle and their effort because they were down at half and played with a lot of energy."

And even games they're not supposed to win. Vogel was given the head job on a permanent basis during the offseason -- albeit with a veteran coaching staff hand-picked by top Pacers executive Larry Bird, including former top Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, Phil Jackson's right-hand man in L.A. -- and the Pacers were aggressive in the truncated free-agency period, signing former All-Star power forward David West, to go along with their quiet draft-day deal that brought combo guard George Hill, an Indianapolis native, from the Spurs, a move that was muffled by the then-impending lockout.

"Hes a very good player, been a good player in this league for a long time, very versatile. He can post, he can pop, put it on the floor. Hes a good player. Hes gotten more comfortable," grudgingly admitted frustrated Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. "Hill's a starting-caliber player. They're good. They're very good."

It wasn't as if the cupboard was bare previously, as a team previously based around the scoring output of small forward Danny Granger -- a one-time All-Star, whose efficiency has waned as defenses have focused on shutting him down; it should be noted that the injured Luol Deng routinely gives Granger fits on both ends of the floot, an issue the Pacers didn't have to deal with Wednesday - -now has balance. Center Roy Hibbert continues to develop, point guard Darren Collison is a more than competent floor general, second-year swingman Paul George is widely regarded as one of the more underrated young players in the league and backup power forward Tyler Hansborough is an energetic irritant, but a high-level reserve, something the Bulls can certainly attest to.

"Paul George has got a great future in the league. All-around player, plays great defense, shoots the ball. His shootings improved, puts it on the floor. Theyre a well-balanced team," Thibodeau evaluated, "You cant give Granger any space. You make a body-position mistake against him, hes going to make you pay for it. Hes a very good player."

But it's more than just talent. The Pacers have taken on a blue-collar approach, something that has made them tops in the league in field-goal percentage defense, as well as an inside-out offensive attack that has diversified their offensive game from the outside jumper-happy strategy of years past. Additionally, the presence of the no-nonsense West, a key to the Hornets' success in previous seasons. and local product Hill, who comes from a winning background with San Antonio, have also made a major difference.

"Every year, you want to get better. I think going through some of the things these guys went through last year, I think the best experience is to play. Actually being out there and playing, and being a part of the game and I think just growing up. The way the games are coming this year, you don't have a whole lot of -- really, no practice time -- so all the experience is coming in the game and I think we're learning game by game," West told CSNChicago.com. "This is the best team, basically, in the NBA and we were able to get a win from them in a place where they're basically unbeatable.

"It's good for us, man. It's only one win and it's only a small part of what we have to do," he continued. "We want to be able to win on the road."

Added Granger: "It feels good. We haven't got a win here, I think, in the last 11 times we've played here, so just to come here and get the win, especially with them beating us in the playoffs, it feels good.

"Just the experience. We've got the experience, especially being a year older. We added D-West, George Hill, two guys that come from winning ballclubs, then our young guys growing up," he added. "Roy Hibbert's getting better, Paul George's getting better, Tyler Hansborough, Darren Collison."

Vogel, a confident, even brash type, injected the Pacers -- a deep team with both size and versatility -- with the belief they could pull off the unexpected, even saying so publicly in the midst of last spring's playoff series. That mindset has been furthered with not only the team's additions, but their success this season.

"The difference between this year's team and last year's team is we have confidence that we'll score at crunch time, we will score in the fourth quarter, and we didn't have that last year and it cost us the series here, and we believe that going into the fourth quarter that we can get stops and we can execute enough to score enough to win these close games," Vogel said Wednesday. "They were crushed that they didn't win last year. They believed that they were going to win last year. They're very driven and we're happy to get a 'W' tonight.

"You can still go on the road on a back-to-back and pull yourself together, have a gut-check effort, and come back and win a game," he continued, citing the Pacers' 56-point effort in a disappointing loss Tuesday. "Our guys are a tough-minded bunch.

"We believe we're one of the best defensive teams in the league and it was a strong effort for us."

Wednesday's win was just one game, but it was also a continued step in the right direction for Indiana. As the Bulls-Pacers' border war resumes -- after a hiatus, as both teams have seen down periods since Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller used to face off -- keep an eye on the postseason, though probably not in the first round this spring, as it wouldn't be surprising to see the newly-christened Bankers Life Fieldhouse host its own opening-round playoff series.

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


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.