Bulls

No easy choices for All-Star reserves

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No easy choices for All-Star reserves

The reserves for Feb. 26s All-Star Game in Orlando will be announced Thursday and as usual, there are sure to be some snubs. Since the leagues coaches, who are consumed with their own teams, vote for the exhibitions reserves, there are usually some dubious choices among the annual selections.

But in this lockout-shortened season, theres an opportunity to rectify, at least once, the process. Perennial participants like 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki are off to slow starts, while up-and-coming young players are having breakout seasons.

The starters for each conferences team, including Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, have already been voted in by the fans, but there will be much debate as to the other players who deserve the honor.

In the Eastern Conference, Indianas Roy Hibbert is the clear-cut choice to back up Orlandos Dwight Howard at center, as his Pacers have shown marked improvement and his rebounding along with Frank Vogels insistence on an inside-out offensive philosophy have been a major reason why. Backing up Miamis LeBron James and New Yorks Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt, Atlantas Josh Smith, often maligned as inconsistent, has ensured that the Hawks remain a projected playoff team, even without frontcourt partner Al Horford, whos out for the season, should make his All-Star debut, while Miamis Chris Bosh, who receives frequent criticism for his lack of toughness inside, has put up stellar numbers this season, especially Wade was out of the lineup, is also deserving of a nod.

In the backcourt, there are two guards who should be locks behind starters Rose and Miamis Dwyane Wade: Bostons Rajon Rondo and surprisingly to some, Milwaukees Brandon Jennings, whose Bucks host the Bulls Saturday night. While the aging Celtics dont exactly resemble a contender at this early juncture of the NBA campaign, Rondo has been their best player and has improved as a scoring threat, while Jennings, after battling the sophomore blues a year ago, has kept the Bucks afloat with his dynamic scoring and playmaking and although New Jerseys Deron Williams may have the experience and better resume, Jennings is doing more with a similar amount of talent in his supporting cast, given that swingman Stephen Jackson doesnt appear fully motivated and center Andrew Bogut continues to struggle with injuries.

Meanwhile, Philadelphias versatile Andre Iguodala is the most recognizable player on a balanced 76ers team that has surprised many observers this season and while his scoring numbers are pedestrian, the Sixers, who currently lead the Atlantic Division over the more highly-touted Celtics and Knicks by a wide margin, deserve a representative. The final spot on the East team is a tough choice, but though his chances to make his All-Star debut have been derailed by a recent left-wrist injury, when examining his impact for the Bulls, a case could be made that Luol Deng is more deserving than the likes of Bostons Paul Pierce the Celtics have regressed and he got off to a slow start after missing the beginning of the season with his own injury woes for the East.

Although hes picked up his play as of late, Pierce got off to a slow start after missing the beginning of the season due to his own injury woes, but the Celtics have regressed, the grizzled veteran has had more than enough chances to represent the Celtics in the annual affair, he could use the rest, Rondo will give Boston a player in the game, and Boston simply doesnt deserve multiple players honored this season. If, for whatever reason, any of the starters or other reserves are unable to play, Torontos Andrea Bargnani, despite his Raptors woeful record, should be the first alternate considered after Pierce and Williams.

The Western Conference is a bit easier to call, as Memphis Marc Gasol who looks like the better Gasol brother on a more frequent basis these days is an easy choice as the backup to the Lakers Andrew Bynum. Behind starting forwards Blake Griffin of the Clippers and the Thunders Kevin Durant, last seasons biggest snub, Portlands LaMarcus Aldridge should be rewarded, along with the man who likely took his spot in Los Angeles last year, Minnesotas Kevin Love.

The final frontcourt spot is a bit tougher to decide, but as well as Denver has been playing, the Nuggets Danilo Gallinari should be rewarded for leading the way on a deep, balanced team; similar to the Sixers, Denver looks like a true contender in its conference, but the contributions of Gallo are easier to qualify than Iguodalas. Other candidates for the position include Lakers big man Pau Gasol (while rumors of the Lakers demise have been greatly exaggerated, Gasol is admittedly having a down year), Memphis Rudy Gay (the athletic forward has done well in making up for the absence of the injured Zach Randolph, but the Grizzlies have still underachieved in general) or the Utah combo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who are too close in production to make the call for the improved Jazz.

The guards in the West should also see some new faces in Houstons Kyle Lowry, who is quietly having an amazing season for new head coach Kevin McHales overachieving Rockets, and Golden States Monta Ellis, who is averaging a career-high in assists and is probably the best player in the league to havent ever received an All-Star bid. The final choice to back up Staples Center co-dwellers Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul in the backcourt is a no-brainer: Oklahoma Citys Russell Westbrook, who is almost as responsible for the Thunders success as superstar teammate Durant, with familiar faces Steve Nash of Phoenix (still leading the league in assists, but his Suns mediocrity cant be ignored) and San Antonios Tony Parker, once again having a solid year.

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.