Bulls

Cristiano Felicio plays unlikely hero, keeps Bulls' slim playoff hopes alive

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Cristiano Felicio plays unlikely hero, keeps Bulls' slim playoff hopes alive

The Bulls had offseason visions of an early spring rematch against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with playoff implications on the line.

And at the time, the thought of Brazilian rookie Cristiano Felicio making a significant impact in such a game would have been just as unlikely as the Bulls’ playoff chances being on life support in the final week of the regular season.

But that’s the situation the Bulls face, still needing what Fred Hoiberg described as a “miracle” in the season’s final four days to make the postseason. But for at least one more night they staved off elimination, and the little known Brazilian suddenly making a name for himself was a major reason why.

Felicio scored a career-high 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting, blocked two shots and played the final 15 minutes as the Bulls topped the Cavaliers, 105-102, which also kept Cleveland from securing the top seed in the East.

“You could argue he was the player of the game,” Hoiberg said of his rookie center.

Felicio was part of a Bulls bench unit that outscored the Cavs’ reserves, 44-11, on a night when each of the Bulls’ starters finished with a negative rating – each of the Cavs’ starters subsequently finished with a positive rating.

With Taj Gibson sidelined a sixth consecutive game, Felicio again found himself thrust into the rotation behind Pau Gasol. He ran the pick-and-roll offense without flaw in the first half, finishing all three of his shots at the basket, including a thunderous dunk of an alley-oop from Aaron Brooks.

[MORE: Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs]

And while he had logged double-digit minutes in each of the last six games, on Saturday night Hoiberg stayed with the 23-year-old in crunch time. He played all but the final two seconds of the fourth quarter. He produced during the Bulls’ decisive 13-2 run early in the final period, finishing on a dunk, blocking a Kyrie Irving layup and adding two more points on a layup that helped give the Bulls a 97-84 lead midway through the period.

He was strong in pick-and-roll defense against the Cavs’ small ball lineup, and when Cleveland cut the deficit to six with a 12-5 run, Felicio responded with an up-and-under layup off a feed from Jimmy Butler, who finished with 21 points and six assists.

Felicio got too aggressive in the final minute attempting to grab an offensive rebound, fouling J.R. Smith and sending him to the line where he cut the deficit to two. But on the whole he was part of a defense that held the Cavs to 33 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“I haven’t been playing games like that for a couple of years now, and of course it’s different to be playing crunch time in the NBA, and it was a great experience for me,” Felicio said. “I made a couple of mistakes there but it was good for me to know what I had to do, and keep improving from that.”

Felicio spent much of the season buried behind the guy who was buried on the Bulls’ frontcourt depth chart, first round pick Bobby Portis. But injuries to Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol have given the 23-year-old center his chance to shine, and he’s made good on his opportunity.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

He made just five appearances in the Bulls’ first 50 games, logging no more than four minutes in each. His first real opportunity and the blossoming of his confidence came just after the All-Star break. With Mirotic still out, he scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds in 14 minutes against the Raptors.

Since then he’s been given additional minutes in the absence of Gibson, and he’s grown each game. In his last seven contests, Felicio has averaged 6.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 14.6 minutes.

“I think if you give anybody confidence, and he’s a very confident player, that they can show they can play,” Butler said. “He’s here to stay. He works incredibly hard and I’m happy for him. I really am.”

Felicio only started playing basketball in Brazil when he was 13 years old. The 6-foot-10 center became too big for soccer – he quit when he was told he’d have to play goalie – and he spent the last three seasons playing for Flamengo in his home country. He also helped Brazil win a pair of FIBA tournaments in 2014.

He joined the Bulls’ Summer League team in 2015, where he averaged 3.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in six games. That was enough for the Bulls to sign him in July, and they decided to keep him on the regular season roster. Felicio said no other teams had shown interest in him, and if the Bulls released him after the preseason he would have gone back to Brazil.

It won’t be enough to bring the Bulls back into playoff contention – one Bulls loss or Pacers win ends the Bulls’ chances – but could hold weight when the team begins to plan its offseason.

Noah will be an unrestricted free agent. Gasol is expected to opt out of his contract, and his future in Chicago is still a question mark. Felicio is under contract for one more season, and while he’s still a raw talent that projects as an asset off the bench next season, the flashes he’s shown in the last two weeks should have him competing for minutes in the fall.

Where Felicio fits in and how his continued improvement may change the direction the Bulls take in the offseason will be determined later. For now, for one night, Felicio played the role of unlikely hero and kept the Bulls’ slim playoff hopes alive.

“I tried to go there and play as hard as I can, and my teammates are always with me and talking with me. Tonight was a good night for me,” he said. “I hit a couple layups that got me going and after that continued to play as hard as I could, and I was able to help the team win the game.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”