Bulls

LeBron's epic performance turns out to be one Cavs needed

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LeBron's epic performance turns out to be one Cavs needed

Derrick Rose grabbed the rebound in mid-stride, charging down court with less than a minute remaining in Game 5. With the Bulls in the midst of a 17-4 run that had pulled them back within two, 101-99, Rose had only Matthew Dellavedova between him and the basket. Or so he thought.

Rose picked up his dribble at the free throw line and took two hard steps to his right, with Dellavedova reading those steps to move in front of the Bulls' point guard. That pushed Rose off-balance before he attempted a floater and was met by a leaping LeBron James, who recorded his third block of the night to maintain the Cavaliers' lead. Out of a timeout Jimmy Butler missed a 3-pointer from the corner, with James securing his 12th and final rebound before Cleveland used six free throws in the final 17 seconds to ice the game, and perhaps the series.

That sequence - James had penetrated to find a wide open Kyrie Irving in the corner before the Rose rebound/transition layup attempt - was indicative of the night James had Tuesday, and the way the two-time NBA champion has performed the entire series.

Yes, James' MVP-like stat line - 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks and zero turnovers in 42 minutes - was everything the Cavaliers wanted and hoped for when he made the decision to return home 10 months ago. But in a game where the opposition wouldn't go away quietly for a third straight game, James' performance Tuesday evening was everything the Cavaliers needed to maintain a stronghold on this second-round series.

[MORE BULLS-CAVS: Taj Gibson's ejection controversial and costly in Bulls' loss]

"LeBron was outstanding in every element of the game," Cavs head coach David Blatt said after the game. "You can't pick a thing that he didn't do at the highest level."

Blatt's comments were a stark contrast from what James had done the prior week in Chicago. With Kyrie Irving aggravating a foot sprain early in Game 3 on Friday, the Bulls defense was able to focus more of its attention on keeping James out of the paint and living with his outside jumpers. The results were telling, as James went 7-for-31 (22.5%) outside the painted area in Games 3 and 4, with only 24 field goal attempts coming in the paint. In Games 1 and 2, James had attempted 32 shots in the paint as opposed to just 19 outside it.

But the fierce, attacking James was back in Game 5. He quickly drew two fouls on Jimmy Butler in the first quarter, forcing the Bulls' top defender to the bench just 7 minutes in. From there James was honed in, scoring seven of his 10 first-half field goals in the paint and three other jumpers out of the left post. He finished with 24 first-half points on just 12 shots, 10 of them makes.

[MORE BULLS-CAVS: Kyrie Irving overcomes limitations to kickstart Cavaliers]

"Any time you get some shots going early you feel pretty good. I was able to get my jumper going, able to get my post-up game pretty early and my attack game," James said. "So, just try to feed off it. Feed off the rhythm I had and stay in it as long as I could."

When that rhythm was thrown off in the third quarter by the staunch defense of Butler, as well as constant help defense rotating from the weak side to the post on James' side of the floor, James found his rhythm distributing. Four of his six assists came directly out of halftime, including three in a four-possession span after the Bulls had cut a 10-point halftime deficit to just one. Then James added a three-point play, taking advantage of rookie Nikola Mirotic's subpar defense, to push the lead back out to nine in a matter of 3+ minutes.

Even as the Bulls pulled out all the stops - they made good on their promise to attack Irving's hobbled foot by feeding Mike Dunleavy early and often - it was James' aggressive first half that opened up the Cavs offense in the third quarter, as they connected on 55 percent of their shots.

"(It) opens up the floor. Guys are forced to help, leaves us driving angles, leaves us open shots," said Iman Shumpert of James' aggressiveness, "and it gives us the world of confidence to know that our big gun is ready to go."

[MORE BULLS-CAVS: Bulls fight but come up short in series-turning loss to Cavs]

James sensed closing time was near early in the fourth quarter. Though he began the stanza on the bench, the Cavs pushed their nine-point third-quarter lead to 15 by the time James checked in at the 8:35 mark. He showed poise in attacking Butler off the dribble for two and then drained a step-back 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down to push the lead back out to 15 inside 7 minutes to play.

At that moment it appeared the Cavs had seen the last of the Bulls' effort in Game 5 - Taj Gibson had been ejected for kicking Dellavedova and Rose had scored four points since a 12-point opening stanza. But Tom Thibodeau's group clamped down and strung together an improbable 11-0 run in just under 2 minutes to cut the deficit back to four, 97-93. So once again the Cavaliers called upon James to stop the bleeding, which he did by splitting a double team and finding a wide open Tristan Thompson under the basket for a dunk to stop the run. The next trip down James earned a pair of free throws - which he hit - to push the lead out to eight.

Back-to-back triples from Butler made it a two-point game before James clamped down defensively on Rose, swatting away the transition layup and, shortly after, any chance of a comeback.

For as well as the Cavaliers played as a team - shooting 50 percent, making eight 3-pointers, winning the rebounding battle, 11 team turnovers - with Irving (25 points), Thompson (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Smith (+18 in 29 minutes) all contributing, again and again they looked to James to cease any sort of momentum the Bulls gained. And The King answered.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The first statistic James looks for in the box score each game is turnovers, and on Tuesday night he found a "0" in that column. For all the touches James received in the post, the crosscourt passes he made to open 3-point shooters and the drives into traffic he engaged in, not once did he turn the ball over. For Shumpert, who had 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, James' model efficiency (he finished 14-for-24 from the field) was his biggest improvement after he committed 15 turnovers alone in Games 3 and 4.

"He made sure that we got a shot every time," Shumpert said. "Even if it wasn’t the best shot, we got attempts. And with the guys that we got, as long as we get a shot at the rim every time down the floor we’ll be fine."

A game that felt like a runaway win for Cleveland was much closer than it should have been. The Bulls haven't won two games in the series, including one in Cleveland, on luck alone. And understanding the fallout that may occur this offseason with Thibodeau and the front office, they won't go away quietly. So while Tuesday night felt like vintage James full of highlight reel dunks, blocks and passes, the truth is that the Cavs' tiny margin for error was filled by an epic performance from James they needed to earn a victory.

"Thibs is one of the best to do it, especially on the defensive end," Smith said of the Bulls' defense. "He makes it tough for us. Fortunately we’ve got a pretty good in player in '23' who bails us out."

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.”