Bulls

NBA arenas dark on opening night, basketball still shines

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NBA arenas dark on opening night, basketball still shines

I should be in Dallas right now, perhaps wrapping up a post-shootaround lunch at Mexican restaurant El Fenix, not far from the American Airlines Center, before heading back to my hotel prior to tonight's Bulls' regular-season opener against the defending champion Mavericks.

Instead, I'm in good old Hyde Park, biding my time by texting, calling and emailing folks around the league, and perusing the World Wide Web for tidbits of NBA-related information--from the significant (such as union president Derek Fisher's latest letter to his constituents, defending himself against accusations of striking side deals with league commissioner David Stern) to the irrelevant (Nets power forward Kris Humphries was actually surprised to learn his marriage to Kim Kardashian was on the rocks?)--as the four-month-long NBA lockout continues.

Not exactly what I signed up for.

But as depressing as the league's labor impasse might be, I can't complain, especially when comparing my situation to the legions of team employees, fans and yes, even players suffering during this work stoppage. At least from a local standpoint, things don't look quite as grim.

As the Chicago Tribune reported, the Bulls are one of the more stable franchises during the lockout, as workers and basketball-operations staff alike remain employed--Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, a longtime assistant, fought for his staff in preparation for this very situation.

While they can't work with, let alone communicate with players, an extended offseason of analysis will ensure they're prepared when play finally resumes--and while there are great expectations for the team to pursue an upgrade at shooting guard or even explore the rash and ridiculous possibility of cutting ties with Carlos Boozer under the reported amnesty clause in the new CBA (not happening), after a 62-win season, there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

Still, although the Bulls might be a squad to benefit from a shortened season--due to their combination of relative youth (even if Kurt Thomas, who turned 39 last month, returns), roster stability, chemistry and low-maintenance players with strong work ethics--just last week, it appeared as if they'd be getting back to business sooner than later.

Tuesday? We can only speculate, but the forecast again looks more cloudy than sunny.

So, rather than sinking further into a lockout malaise, the time has come to focus on other hoops pursuits. Unlike many of my other NBA-reporter colleagues, I can't claim experience in covering other sports (I'd like to think of myself as pretty knowledgeable when it comes to football, but in reality, I'm probably only an expert when it comes to my Philadelphia Eagles, who I fully expect to continue their recent pattern and thump the Bears come next Monday night, even if it means I'll need a police escort home from a local bar) and fortunately, I won't have to do so.

As somebody who's covered more than my fair share of high school and college basketball, I certainly don't mind jumping back into that scene. But while I've kept abreast of even minute details since I've started covering the Bulls on a full-time basis, I've spent the past month or so--since it became clear that I wouldn't be making the daily trek to the Berto Center for training camp--getting re-acclimated to those levels of basketball, particularly high school.

With so many local college programs in the area and several ballyhooed prep prospects to go around, there's plenty to observe and write about, without having to board a plane.

As much as I'll miss long lines at airports, early-morning flights and commuting to Deerfield from the South Side--in all seriousness, I do lament the absence of press-room meals, at least in certain cities--watching the likes of Simeon and elite recruit Jabari Parker, a Northwestern team that looks poised to end its NCAA Tournament drought (if not this season, then when?) and players poised for a breakout year, such as DePaul sophomore forward Cleveland Melvin or Curie High School sophomore big man Cliff Alexander, should make up for the lack of professional basketball being played.

At least until the lockout ends. Then, starving for hoops played at the highest level in the world, I'll take it all back.

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

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USA TODAY

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.