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NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?

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NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?

With the Bulls set to kick off their first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman are chatting about the Bulls' prospects this postseason. Here's what transpired:

Mark Strotman: LeBron James heading home. The Splash Brothers and the Warriors taking the NBA by storm. A narrow, four-player MVP race late into the year. The Atlanta Hawks reeling off 19 straight wins. Far too many injuries to stars and rookies alike. Derek Fisher and the Knicks trying to run the triangle offense. Derrick Rose's return after two years away from the game. The 2014-15 regular season had a little bit of everything, setting up what should be a terrific postseason with plenty of intriguing storylines.

As it pertains to the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau's group will be making their seventh straight trip to the postseason. And with Rose back in the lineup, Jimmy Butler playing at an All-Star level, Pau Gasol having a career year at age 34 and a bench with offensive firepower, when healthy (which they are) this is the Bulls' most talented roster since Thibodeau took over in 2009. Yet for a fifth straight season, the question remains: Can the Bulls get past LeBron James? In James' four seasons in Miami, twice he knocked out the Bulls on his way to Finals appearances (as well as his final season in Cleveland), and with the two teams headed for a collision course in the semifinals, my question is: What will it take for the Bulls to get over that 6-foot-8, 250-pound hump in Northeast Ohio?

I believe it begins with the play of Jimmy Butler. Before he was named an All-Star ranked 15th in the league in scoring, Butler averaged 41.6 minutes per game in 17 playoff games the last two seasons as the Bulls' primary defensive stopper while also averaging a respectable 13.4 points. Now the onus is on him to continue that All-NBA Defensive Second Team defense from a year ago while also playing the second scoring option behind Pau Gasol. Chicago's slight defensive regression this season (11th in defensive efficiency after four straight years in the top-5) will need to improve in the playoffs, and that's on Butler. Joakim Noah isn't playing at a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-caliber level, while Gasol and Derrick Rose aren't cut out for the role, meaning Butler needs to be "the guy" while also maintaining his season point and shooting averages.

Vincent Goodwill: Jimmy Butler, you say? If it starts with him, he has to be the best wingman in this series. You know, the guy who sets everything up for his buddy at the bar? Smooth conversation, under control, low maintenance, that's what Butler has to be. The ultimate complement to Derrick Rose.

And not Derrick Rose the 30-point scorer, but the player who controls the game from a playmaking standpoint. He's displayed far more mastery at the point guard spot since he's returned from injury than I ever recalled, and while some of that is a function of learning and trusting his body, that mindset must carry over. Rose will be the first option when he's out there but by the attention he commands, Butler has to benefit.

If that tantalizing and drama-filled Bulls-Cavs matchup occurs, you try to prevent James from his explosions while trying to keep Kyrie Irving from making a mockery of the series, because he can. In other words, hope and pray.

Strotman: Butler's breakout campaign and Rose's third, fourth and fifth returns from injury this year dominated headlines, while Gasol became the dollar-for-dollar best free agent signing of the offseason (Gar Forman owes Carmelo a fruit basket and a thank you card at some point, by the way). But I was amazed at how little criticism Noah received this year. It was almost as if the positive headlines coming out of the United Center allowed Noah a free pass because, hey, they were winning. True, Noah finished last year's playoffs on one knee and dealt with that injury most of this season. Even still, this isn't a fan base that gives free passes for injuries (see: Rose, Derrick).

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Looking past the fans' criticism, though, Noah shot a career-worst 44.5 percent from the field and was nowhere near the same defender he was a year ago. It's clear he hasn't been totally healthy most of the year, but in the playoffs that'll get you sent home packing. The biggest issue may be that a true center playing power forward on a bad knee/hamstring is going to have to guard stretch-fours in Ersan Ilyasova, Paul Millsap, and/or Kevin Love in the coming weeks. I have serious doubts about how much Noah will be able to contribute in a seven-game series. Am I overreacting? It was, after all, Noah who said "the plan" was to flip the switch once the playoffs began.

Goodwill: I think the lack of attention placed on Noah's play has been for two reasons. One, he's always been thought of as the heart and soul of the on-court product. He speaks candidly, he's been around and his effort always looks on-point. It's hard to quantify his numbers because his effect has always been greater than tangibly.

How do those passes get there? How does he even make free throws? It's apparent he has trouble finishing in traffic and the offense is run differently because of Gasol's presence and the emergence of Jimmy Butler. I think if Noah believes he's been playing possum all season with the hope he'll be able to turn it on during the playoffs, that's very dangerous.

The true problem is you have to wonder about all the interior defenders the Bulls have. Each has major concerns. Taj Gibson, is he healthy? Nikola Mirotic, is he ready for the physicality of the postseason? Gasol, he struggled with Al Horford Wednesday night at the United Center and against mobile bigs as a whole. Will they be able to keep athletic bigs off the offensive glass, i.e. Milwaukee and Cleveland?

Noah's play is a question. But there's plenty of questions all around.

Strotman: I'm glad you brought up Mirotic. I have no idea how to project him in the playoffs. He showed flashes in the season's first half, then seemingly came out of nowhere to average 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in March before tapering off in April. I was amazed to see he's shooting just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc this season. It just feels like he's making them at such a better clip, and that's where I'm stuck. Will the Bulls get the passing-the-eye-test version of Mirotic in the postseason, or the guy who shot 29 percent from deep and committed more turnovers than he had assists in the season's final two months?

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I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to see a plus contributor...so long as he knocks off that damn pump-fake. The big question is whether or not he can improve defensively. As you mentioned, the game slows down and gets more physical in the postseason, and this is new territory for him. The Bulls were significantly worse defensively with Mirotic on the floor, and that fourth-quarter scoring magic is only going to fly with Thibs so long. And for a Bulls team that struggled rebounding the ball this season, second chances are going to loom large.

All that being said, it's incredible how unfazed he is for having only 82 NBA games under his belt. It's almost as if not fully understanding specific players' skill sets has made him fearless. Ninety-nine percent of the NBA knows not to try and defend LeBron at the rim in transition. Mirotic strikes me as that 1 percent who will say, "Screw it. I got this." It'll get him into trouble at times, but that Nate Robinson-type attitude also won the Bulls a few playoff games two years ago. (Still, Niko...When LeBron has a full head of steam? Don't jump, youngblood.)

Before we wrap this up with predictions, let me ask you: What's one area the Bulls are going to be better off in the postseason than they were in the first 82 games?

Goodwill: I understand the general feeling about Mirotic. But I'm not sure if the dependence on him will be as heavy as it ever was in March when he set the world on fire. I think once you get to the playoffs, it's more about guys who can create their shot over guys who can make them. And it'll be extremely hard to break that long-held habit of the "Niko fake", which is catching few opponents by surprise and more importantly, fewer officials (picture Danny Crawford or Joe Crawford smirking at Niko when they keep their whistles in their pockets).

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Rookies get little respect from the officials on either end in the playoffs, and defensively you wonder if some of the extra physical jousting that goes on will hurt Niko on that end. But back to offense. The dependency on shots will come from Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol. It wouldn't be a surprise if 60-70 percent of usage comes from those three guys. Niko's offense will be like chili on your coney dog (it's a Detroit thing, you'll understand one day), an added bonus but too much of it will send you holding your stomach in pain.

As far as the Bulls being better in the playoffs? Consistency on defense, actually. No more random nights where your mind wanders to the next night on the schedule or the dreaded 4-in-5 stretches that can lead to mental fatigue. The offense, of course, will come and go but I think the attention to detail defensively will lead to tighter play--plus with Thibs coaching for it all this postseason, he'll leave nothing to chance. I don't think you'll see the 110-104 final scores (except for maybe Saturday, which is the courting period), but the old-fashioned defense, if the Bulls have it in them? It'll come out in this series.

Strotman: I agree the defense will be better, or at least have fewer silly lapses (looking at you, Bulls defense that gave up 121 points to the Magic in January). Will it be good enough to slow down a Cavaliers offense that's posted a blistering, NBA-best 110.1 offensive rating since LeBron returned in mid-January? No, it won't. I believe the Bulls could end the Milwaukee series in four games if they really want to, but this Cleveland team has found a phenomenal rhythm behind James and Kyrie Irving. Hell, even the black sheep of the group, Kevin Love, was the only player in the NBA this year to average 16 points, nine rebounds and a 3-pointer per game. The Bulls hit home runs this offseason in bringing over Mirotic and signing Gasol; the problem is the Cavaliers hit grand slams with their midseason trades (not to mention signing James and trading for Love in the process).

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The Bulls simply won't have the firepower to match Cleveland. I've come around on the idea of the Cavaliers being a better matchup for the Bulls than the Hawks - the Bulls went 0-3 against Atlanta this year - but that doesn't make it a good matchup. Cavaliers in six, and it won't feel that close. I've seen this LeBron vs. Bulls movie way too many times. It always ends the same.

Goodwill: Well, nobody's being foolish about their chances against the Cavs from a defensive standpoint, once that inevitable matchup happens. Their best chance at an extended run through May is taking care of business against the Bucks. The Bucks are young, athletic and energetic--as the Bulls aren't exactly brimming with young nor do they employ the versatile wings the Bucks have. But this series shouldn't be tough, and making sure they're enjoying the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on May 2 as opposed to coming off a Game 7 or recovering from a longer-than-expected series is paramount.

Now, to LeBron. You're not stopping him and Kyrie Irving won't be the least bit concerned with the rigors and pressure of the playoffs. So the Bulls' best bet relies on two things that have come under heavy scrutiny: Coaching and depth. The Bulls have the better coach in Thibodeau and the 4th-7th guys are better as well. Trusting David Blatt in a playoff series? The Cavaliers would be better off with Scott Brooks and he's not exactly John Wooden.

All things in their favor, health and Derrick Rose, the Bulls carry this to sixth or seventh game. But the two best players are on the other side, and that usually wins out. Do the Bulls have enough? Yes. But their margin for error is so wire-thin it's too much to expect given the circumstances, and it'll make way for an interesting offseason before we reconvene next September.

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

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ESPN

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

The NBA may have lost another top superstar due to injury.

On Friday, Jimmy Butler appeared to have suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee. He left the game against the Houston Rockets unable to put any pressure on his right leg and needed assistance getting back to the locker room. 

Here's a video of the incident:

Coach Tom Thibodeau said that Butler will have an MRI when the team returns to Minnesota on Saturday.

Butler drew a lot of headlines last weekend after not playing in the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Entering Friday, Butler led the league with 37.3 minutes played per game.

The Bulls also take on the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday night.

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.