Bulls

NBA Power Rankings: The closely contested Eastern Conference

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NBA Power Rankings: The closely contested Eastern Conference

There are 10 teams in the Eastern Conference within 3.5 games of each other. Oh, and they're the 10 best teams in the conference.

Yes, the East has been entirely muddled all year and six weeks into the season we still haven't seen much separation.

The Cavaliers lead the way with a 15-7 record and certainly should improve as Kyrie Irving nears a return to the lineup. The Raptors and Bulls are at No. 2 and 3, respectively, as many expected they'd be. Charlotte, Indiana and Miami are next up, so the teams that likely will be in the thick of it in May are atop the conference. But there's little wiggle room among them, as well as the teams just below them.

Orlando, sitting at 12-11, is currently out of the playoff picture by a single game and yet are just 3.5 games out of the top spot in the East. The top dogs will separate themselves eventually, but for now it's wild to think that a two- or three-game losing streak could vault a team from a top-3 spot in the conference to out of the playoff picture as a whole.

On to the rankings:

Previous power rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6

Rank (LW) Team
Record Comment
1 (1) (24-1) So they're human. Certainly not a bad loss by any standards, considering it came on the final game of a seven-game road trip.
(2) (20-5) One player in the NBA is averaging at least 20 points, two steals and one block per game: Kawhi Leonard.
(6) (16-8) They've won an NBA-best five straight games, with Kevin Durant averaging 25.8 points on shooting 58.6 percent in that span.
4 (5) (15-7) It would be great to see Kyrie Irving return on Thursday as the Cavaliers travel to Oklahoma City. Big barometer test for both teams.
5 (9) (16-9) DeMar DeRozan is 32-for-34 from the free throw line in his last three games. He's a big reason Toronto is up to No. 6 in offensive efficiency.
6 (4) (13-9) Beating up on the Heat was sandwiched in between blowout losses against Golden State and Detroit. They go as Paul George goes.
7 (7) (13-8) Just win, baby. The Bulls are 2-0 since Taj Gibson replaced Nikola Mirotic in the starting lineup despite the No. 28 offensive efficiency.
8 (3) (13-9) They needed a desperation comeback against the Grizzlies to avoid losing their fourth straight. Dwyane Wade was clutch down the stretch.
9 (13) (14-10) This team is for real. After nearly beating the Warriors in 2OT, they traveled to Charlotte the following night and beat the Hornets.
10 (8) (14-9) Three teams rank in the top-6 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Golden State, San Antonio and the Hornets.
11 (16) (14-10) Since falling below .500 the Clips have won seven of nine. DeAndre Jordan has averaged 15.7 rebounds in his last seven games.
12 (15) (12-12) Winners in seven of nine, and James Harden is starting to roll as the Rockets are finally back to .500. 
13 (12) (13-11) The Mavericks are just 5-5 at home after going 27-14 there a year ago. Still lots to figure out with this reworked roster.
14 (10) (14-11) Blown out by Oklahoma City and San Antonio to end this past week, they could pick up a big win against the Heat on Monday.
15 (12) (13-12) A 1-3 week, and now they get Washington, Dallas, Chicago and Indiana. A huge week to see where they stand among West contenders.
16 (18) (14-11) Lose four of five, win four straight, lose two then win two. Back and forth they go, but a 22-point win over the Pacers was impressive.
17 (14) (12-11) Evan Fournier has come to a screeching halt. He's averaged 9.3 points on 38 percent shooting in his last nine games.
18 (22) (11-14) Winners in three of their last four, with Eric Bledsoe averaging 22.8 points and 5.8 assists in that span. Getting Tyson Chandler back will help.
19 (17) (10-12) They've lost five of seven and get the Spurs on the road on Monday. The loss of Rudy Gobert has taken a massive toll defensively.
20 (25) (10-15) Giannis Antetokounmpo records his first career triple-double as the Bucks knock off the Warriors. Let's see if that jumpstarts them.
21 (24) (10-12) More leg issues for Bradley Beal, who will be sidelined two weeks. Big for the Wiz to get road wins over Miami and Dallas.
22 (23) (6-17) The record doesn't do this squad justice, as they're a borderline playoff talent when healthy. The problem is they haven't been healthy all year.
23 (20) (11-14) Carmelo Anthony is shooting a career-worst 41.2 percent from the field, but he scored 37 on 13 of 21 shooting in a Saturday win over Portland.
24 (19) (10-15) It's a lost season in Portland, but Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum continue to build a stellar young backcourt for the future.
25 (21) (9-14) Players averaging 9+ boards, 2+ blocks and shooting 50% from the field? DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
26 (27) (9-15) Sign me up for more throwback Rajon Rondo. He's now up to averages of 12.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and a league-high 11.0 assists per game.
27 (26) (9-14) Just not a ton to get excited about with this group, though wins in three of four is a nice bounce-back after losing eight straight.
28 (28) (7-16) Brook Lopez is quietly playing like an All-Star. He's averaging 19.4 points and a career-high 8.2 rebounds for the Nets.
29 (29) (3-21) Great to see D'Angelo Russell starting to put it together. He's averaged 19.7 points in his last three outings.
30 (30) (1-24) Robert Covington is shooting 50% on 4.4 two-pointers per game. He's shooting 31 percent on 6.9 3-pointers per game. Take it inside, bud.

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.