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.
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.
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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.”