Bulls

Pacers poised to improve, but Bulls prepared

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Pacers poised to improve, but Bulls prepared

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Bulls ran through the Central Division last season, losing one contest -- a late-season affair in which Derrick Rose notched a career-high point total before fouling out and the team fell in overtime -- the entire campaign. In the first round of the playoffs, the top-seeded Bulls took on the same team that beat, winning a hard-fought, 4-1 series.

That team, the Indiana Pacers, was a feisty, physical and youthful, if inexperienced bunch, featuring no All-Stars, an interim coach who was the youngest in the league and a home crowd that seemed to be at least 50-50 tilted in Chicago's favor (only three hours and change away by car, but still) during the team's first postseason in years. However, with the likes of David West -- the former Hornets All-Star power forward signed as a free agent recently -- and Indianapolis native George Hill, a draft-day trade acquisition from the Spurs, Indiana might not be back to the championship-contending days of Reggie Miller's prime, but they aren't the pushover Pacers of just a few seasons ago.

"Adding West, he's been a really good player in the league for a long time. Great pick-and-roll player, tough low-post player, terrific competitor," said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau after the team's Friday-morning shootaround. "I think Hill's an excellent player, can play both positions, can score the ball, can play-make, very good off the dribble. So, they're a team that has a lot of weapons."

Added Derrick Rose: "They added some pieces, man. Guys that are hard workers, that have proved themselves in the NBA, established themselves in the NBA as good hustle players, good scorers. But they're a team where their coaching staff I think is great. They definitely gave us a push for the first round of the playoffs last year and I think it'll help us, especially playing against a team like that in the preseason."

Rose should know, as the Pacers' physical defense -- then-rookie Paul George and veteran swingman Dahntay Jones counteracted his speed with their size, perhaps giving the Miami Heat a blueprint for the Eastern Conference Finals, in which the bigger LeBron James frequently guarded the MVP down the stretch of games -- provided at least a nuisance to him last spring, despite the Bulls advancing to the next round.

"It's going to be the same approach, knowing how their coaches are and the players, it's going to be a tough game. Even this game tonight, I'm prepared for a playoff atmosphere," Rose said Friday. "This is like a regular game to us. We're not approaching it lackadaisical. We know that it's time to get better. We can use this time to go out there and get chemistry. We added Rip Hamilton, we've got Jimmy Butler. The starting five hasn't played together against anyone in a very long time and we can use this to our advantage."

"Every game that we played them was a battle and somehow, we just got wins. When we first started off, they were lways the team that had the lead the majority of the game and we just found a way to win at the end," he continued. "That's just the way that they play. They hustle, they grind throughout the whole game. They've got great shooters and great chemistry on their team."

Hamilton, the newest Bulls player, has witnessed the Pacers' ups and downs over the years, as a member of the rival Pistons when Indiana was a legitimate title contender alongside Detroit. The aforementioned Miller, perhaps the greatest player in franchise history, was winding down his career, but had able assistance in promising then-young talents like defensive stalwart and ex-Bull Ron Artest, wing scorer Stephen Jackson, All-Star center Jermaine O'Neal and playmaking point guard Jamaal Tinsley, most of whom have seen their careers spiral downward since the infamous "Malice in the Palace," which occurred in Detroit.

"When we were playing here and playing against them in all those battles with Reggie and all those guys they had here, the fans were always good," Hamilton told CSNChicago.com Friday. "It's good for the city."

The unfortunate incident led to top Pacers executive Larry Bird shipping out most of the roster -- only veteran big man Jeff Foster, a target for Bulls fans last spring for his physical play against Rose, remains -- and rebuild. The team was a non-factor in the NBA for several seasons, but thanks to underrated draft picks and a lot of patience, they are poised to be a team the Bulls have to be concerned about within their division.

"I thought they made good moves and I think they're going to be a good team. It always sounds good, but I think the additions that they made, it can't do anything but make them better. I thought they were great against us in the playoffs. It was 4-1, but every game was tough. By adding those guys with experience and proven winners in the league -- George Hill coming from a program that knows how to win, the Spurs, and West did it with New Orleans -- I really think it's going to add some experience into their mix," Luol Deng, the Bulls' longest-tenured player and in his early days in the NBA when the Pacers were last a force in the league, told CSNChicago.com. "They made the playoffs last year. Now, you add those guys with experience and I thought their coach, when he took over last year, he did a great job in getting those guys committed to what he's trying to do, so I really think their going to be good."

Deng can identify with where the Pacers are now because it reminds him of how observers regarded the Bulls coming into last season. After their successful season a year ago, though, Deng knows teams like Indiana will be targeting them like big-game hunters.

"Last year, it was putting pieces together, exactly where Indiana is right now and a lot of people said, 'It sounds good, but let's see what they can do,' and we put in work," he said. "We did great, but now coming back, we know what we did and we know teams are going to be ready for us from the jump. So, coming in, we've got to try to come in ready."

In this truncated NBA free-agency period, the acquisition of West has gone under the radar, but although Chris Paul's former sidekick is coming off a severe knee injury, his game -- based more on shooting, finesse and strength than explosive athleticism -- should open things up for the Pacers by giving the young team some veteran experience, toughness to help Roy Hibbert battle in the paint and a playoff-tested secondary scorer to take some of the burden off small forward Danny Granger's shoulders.

"Great pick-and-pop player, a lot of experience, he's a vet," Carlos Boozer said of his power-forward counterpart, who he matched up with frequently in the Western Conference while with Utah and should be matched up with in the Bulls' home-and-home preseason set of games with Indiana. "Good player for them, good pickup."

Meanwhile, Hill, the hometown product -- not only did he attend high school in Indianapolis, he went to college at tiny IUPUI, minutes from Conseco Fieldhouse -- should contribute at both guard positions, either playing alongside the smallish Darren Collison, relieving him or usurping his starting role. But regardless of who he's matched up against on the Pacers, Rose won't take the Bulls' division rival lightly.

"I think this year will probably be different," said the league MVP. "But I'm prepared for anything."

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.