Bulls

Once again, LeBron James is all alone but it could be enough

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Once again, LeBron James is all alone but it could be enough

Fitting that David Blatt is exposing himself as a less-than-stellar option for an NBA coach, leaving assistants to prevent him from calling timeouts he didn’t have or drawing up plays that has the best player as an inbounds pass.

It’s fitting LeBron James is having to trudge through the Eastern Conference playoffs with one co-star severely hobbled and another out for the entire run with a bad shoulder.

“It’s huge. We didn’t have any timeouts and we didn’t want to get a T,” James said. “That’s why we’re a unit, that’s why we’re a team. Players make mistakes and coaches make mistakes. And we have to cover for one another. (Assistant coach Tyronn) Lue did that by covering for Blatt and I just tried to cover for my guys on the floor.”

Because for all his work to orchestrate which teammates would join him in his return to Cleveland and which guys would be jettisoned out, James again finds himself in a similar position — staring down the barrel of a team with multiple weapons, a re-emerging star of its own and a player determined to make every step for him as grimy and difficult as possible — alone.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

That feeling where the life leaves your body — where muscles turn to mush, where fans’ screams of joy turn to open-mouthed gasps of anguish? James transferred those emotions to the Bulls players and their fans with the stroke of one fadeaway jumper, a game-winner that probably was more debilitating to the Bulls than Friday’s Derrick Rose shot energized the city and franchise.

“I wanted to get a good look. I faked like I wanted to go for the lob and bounced back to the left corner and took a shot I was comfortable taking,” James said. “It’s a huge win for our group, it means more than just a win for our young group. For us to come into a hostile environment was huge.”

If not for the officials review and extra time to draw a play James made sure to scrap from the jump, the player-coach was blunt and truthful about what would’ve happened anyways.

“We would’ve been prepared. I would’ve made sure our guys were in the right position to get a good look,” James said. “In that situation I can get loose and get a good look no matter who’s on me.”

“To be honest the play that was drawn up, I scratched and told coach just give me the ball. And we’re either gonna go into overtime or I’m gonna win it for us.  It’s that simple.”

[MORE: LeBron's own buzzer beater sends series to 2-2 tie]

In the words of in-game performer and Chicago native Kanye West, “no one man should have all that power.”

Of course, James’ talent is unmatched, but the task of trying to get through the East to the Finals for a fifth straight time is starting to wear on him. Larry Bird’s body broke down. Magic Johnson couldn’t do it. Michael Jordan retired (twice) before his body and spirit had a chance to betray him.

James, looking at the supporting cast in Miami compared to what he could put together as de-facto general manager back in Cleveland, made the calculated decision to head back north, seeing a budding all-star in Kyrie Irving, a No. 1 pick in Andrew Wiggins who could be used as leverage, and plenty other pieces that could be used on the floor or as trade bait as opposed to an aging core in Miami led by his buddy Dwyane Wade.

With Irving’s effectiveness a serious question mark and James being unaware if Irving could muster Wade-like performances while playing through pain, he’s right back to where he started—only this time he’s being forced to depend on the likes of the combustible J.R. Smith, who actually helped save James in the fourth quarter with 11 points.

While James is finding out the toughness his teammates possess, an inexperienced team is learning and growing on the job, quite rapidly.

[RELATED: Cavaliers stand behind ailing Kyrie Irving]

“The kid is a warrior,” said James of Irving. “What he’s gone through right now nobody can relate. He’s played 48 minutes on a sore foot the last two games. Just his presence on the floor, no matter if he’s playing on one foot, you have to account for him because he can make shots. It goes a long way, it’s not just about basketball what this kid is doing for our team right now. He’s giving us everything he’s got and that’s all we can ask for.”

The James explosion hasn’t happened, which should give Bulls that same sinking feeling that was in the pit of their stomachs leaving Game 4.  With Jimmy Butler hounding him, he’s shooting just 37.7 percent from the field, which would qualify as his lowest since the 2007 NBA Finals, a four-game sweep from the San Antonio Spurs and the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics, a team whose defense was engineered by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

“If I get one game where we shoot 50 percent, we might be able to do some things,” James said. “For seven straight years I’e raised it and I take that seriously. I also know that some challenges present different ways of winning. I know my point guard is hobbled and other all-star is out for the season. Shot attempts, efficiency, I want to be efficient but it’s not happening in this series now. I want to do the other things.”

He’s going to the glass, with 11.2 rebounds, and dishing it out to the tune nine assists per game.  So much of the Cavaliers’ fortunes rely in his capable hands and despite his turnovers, offensive fouls and moments where he looks more human than bionic—he’s still the most impactful player in this series.

And if you didn’t, you probably had your mouth wide open, gasping at that fadeaway, because even all alone, you’d still better fear him.

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.