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How 2015 Game 6 beatdown by Cavaliers foreshadowed disastrous Bulls season

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How 2015 Game 6 beatdown by Cavaliers foreshadowed disastrous Bulls season

The long, angered and confused faces worn on the Bulls’ faces as they sat on the bench in the waning moments of Thursday’s disappointing but predictable loss to the New York Knicks have been seen plenty of times before.

Yes, this season, along with the look of bewilderment Fred Hoiberg has worn while trying to explain what he considers the unexplainable—how a team he believed to be disciplined shows no signs of it.

But also, it was worn on May 14, 2015, a night that should’ve spawned the Bulls’ best effort but produced a jarring one, one that started a series of events which has led to where the franchise, the coaching staff and locker room find themselves in today—on the outside looking in the playoff party, as a hungrier and more unified Detroit Pistons team makes a more definitive push toward a postseason berth while the Bulls flail away aimlessly, unable to produce anything more than a moment of peace, let alone optimism.

One can go back to May 14 for Game 6 against the Cleveland Cavaliers last spring to produce the genesis of what you’ve seen for the better part of 70 games this year. On a night where they could’ve come closest to making LeBron James sweat in the postseason by forcing a winner-take-all Game 7, they produced an embarrassing effort as the Cavaliers seemed to give the Bulls chance after chance to send them staggering to the corner with body shots.

[MORE BULLS: Hoiberg 'not going to sugarcoat' Bulls' loss to Knicks]

The Bulls were punchless that evening, those old flicks had no snap to them and it turned out they were more bark than bite. It was because that collection of players was punch drunk—like an old contender who looked formidable but it was only in appearance once the bell rang.

Taj Gibson said it best when he pointedly stated opposing teams look forward to playing the Bulls, and that the Bulls are losing to “trash teams”, a statement one can take some form of exception to considering the Bulls’ record is right at the doorstep of mediocrity.

When fans see the Bulls, they see what the Bulls used to be—a tough, rugged team that would push and push until you broke, a squad that had enough competitive character to push through injuries to the best players and give the best teams their best shot.

Hoiberg, upon taking over for Tom Thibodeau, thought he was taking over a team that had its best punch left to give, apparently bolstered by reinforcements and a new style that supposedly was the new wave of where the NBA was going.

But he was mistaken on a number of levels, and perhaps overestimated the positive affect he could have on a veteran team.

Turns out this team was far more fragile than anyone expected or wanted to believe, and with the bully on the block no longer being feared by even the lowest of the low, all have been exposed.

“It’s simple: We have no discipline,” Pau Gasol said in a visitor’s locker room in Los Angeles in early February, after a blowout loss to the L.A. Clippers on a national TV stage.

The Bulls were six games over .500 that day, which could be termed as the “good-old days” considering they would be firmly entrenched had they just held serve from that embarrassing day—which was preceded by several befuddling losses and followed by…more misery to come.

Since that day, there’s been the Minnesota Timberwolves completing a season sweep with a win over the Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks using them as target practice, the Miami Heat doing the same but with more force and even Friday’s opponent, the Orlando Magic, putting a clown suit on the Bulls.

That’s not to mention the games where the Bulls can’t close because getting defensive stops seems to be offensive, and the belief that outscoring teams is the way to go.

Even if the Bulls overtake the Pistons for a playoff berth, or the Indiana Pacers falter, who honestly believes a Bulls team would be a tough out—especially as Jimmy Butler continues to show mind over matter doesn’t matter when your body is telling you to sit?

Well, outside of the Toronto Raptors, the Bulls aren’t feared, nor should they be.

(Remember when Hoiberg was worried about his offense not catching on early in the season while the defense won games? Ahh, the good old days!)

[BULLS PGL: Clear lack of leadership in Bulls' locker room]

The injuries have certainly hastened the process, but they’ve often been rudderless many nights, unable to galvanize around one player because they don’t have that one player experienced enough in the ways of leadership or a coach who’s had enough games on the sidelines to read a locker room he didn’t expect to walk into.

But this isn’t all on Hoiberg, as that aforementioned day occurred under Thibodeau, the coach who’s now entering martyrdom with the state of affairs of his former team making him look like the Wizards of Oz.

But the roster itself was packaged and presented as something it could never achieve, at least in present form.

(Remember when the biggest question was whether Derrick Rose could stay on the floor and if he could be what the team needs? Turns out he’s held up his end of the bargain, eh? The good old days)

It was too much to ask of this constructed roster, full of “what ifs” and other question marks that never seemed realistic. Changes need to be made, philosophically, personnel wise and the narratives need to disappear before they come out of the closet.

Whether you believe the higher-ups when they said some time ago they never claimed this was a championship-caliber team or not, it’s irrelevant at this point. Tacitly, it was in the air, and the hope was they could be proven right, and all the naysayers would have to eat crow.

But even they didn’t know this team had nothing emotionally to give, that all the blood had been spilled and life had been sucked out of them en masse.

There comes a moment in a playoff series where both teams realize who the better squad is, and the remainder of the games usually bear that out. In the regular season, there’s games, instances where players look around in the locker room at each other realizing they aren’t what they’re depicted.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

They aren’t what they’re projected.

They aren’t what they used to be.

Perhaps our expectations were too high.

Maybe theirs weren’t high enough.

But with 11 games left, expecting a team that has put together Jekyll and Hyde efforts from October to suddenly turn it on is too much to ask, even if it miraculously happens.

At least the façade has been removed, and all parties can move forward with a clear directive because the 82-game season definitely showed everybody what May 14, 2015 should’ve taught everyone.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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USA TODAY

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”