Bulls

Should Bulls worry about Heat's new secret weapon?

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Should Bulls worry about Heat's new secret weapon?

SAN FRANCISCO - Literally across an entire country from Northern California, where the Bulls are currently licking their wounds from Monday night's shocking loss to Golden State, perhaps the most disturbing threat to the chances of Chicago returning to the NBA Finals (let alone a parade down Michigan Ave.) may have emerged Tuesday evening in South Florida: Norris Cole.

Yes, the season is still very young and it might be a stretch to anoint the rookie out of Cleveland State -- though Heat fans serenaded the diminutive point guard, technically the Bulls' original 2011 first-round draft pick, with chants of "M-V-P" -- the next big thing based on a single performance, but what Cole brings to the table can't be ignored. Already appearing to be a potential upgrade from incumbent starter Mario Chalmers, Cole's speed, athleticism, moxie, surprising maturity and maybe most importantly, ability to knock down jumpers, were the difference for the Heat in fending off the Celtics (after surrendering a huge lead) Tuesday.

With head coach Erik Spoelstra reportedly adopting elements of the University of Oregon football team's warp-speed offense, Cole -- along with rugged backup power forward Udonis Haslem -- is a perfect complement to agile, finesse big man Chris Bosh and those two monster athletes Miami has on the wing. In fact, both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James deferred to Cole late against Boston, and with no hesitation, the rookie took over ballhandling duties (matched up with the likes of defensive-minded All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo) and rained in outside jumpers, scoring 14 of his 20 points in a taut fourth quarter, fending off a furious Celtics comeback.

I first became aware of Norris the summer before his senior year at Cleveland State, when he came to Chicago for one of the Nike Skills Academies camps. While pitted against more-ballyhooed peers like Duke All-American Nolan Smith, the little-known prospect wowed the NBA scouts in attendance with his explosiveness and fearlessness, giving him some buzz heading into his final college campaign.

Cole took full advantage of the increased attention, winning Horizon League (the same conference of back-to-back national runner-up Butler, as well as Chicago's own Loyola and UIC) MVP honors and even getting a piece of the national spotlight after a ridiculous 41-point, 20-rebound, nine-assist performance in one game. Still, when draft day came around, some skeptics wondered if, after dominating mid-major competition, whether his lack of size would negate his effectiveness on the next level, if he could make the transition into a traditional point guard and could he consistently hit shots from NBA three-point range.

So far, Cole has answered all of the above and then some, and judging from his even-keeled demeanor down the stretch of his second professional game, justified the trust his star teammates showed they had in him. Now, the pecking order won't be reconfigured to put the rookie ahead of James and Wade or even Bosh, but all of a sudden, coupled with the addition of veteran Shane Battier, still one of the league's better "three-and-D" players, and the low-risk, high-reward Eddy Curry experiment, the Heat are quietly a lot more multi-faceted than a year ago.

And by the way, Bulls fans who read this and saw Cole's Tuesday-night outburst, don't be mad at the front office for not holding onto him. It's not like there's a lot of playing time behind Derrick Rose or a need at the position (maybe not in two seasons, but right now, for his role on the Bulls, C.J. Watson is better than any rookie point guard, including Cole and No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving) and privately, team management is absolutely ecstatic about skilled face-up power forward Nikola Mirotic, who is currently tearing up Spain's high-level ACB league and whom they believe can be an immediate-impact player and possible starter upon arrival in Chicago.

But Cole does affect the Bulls, assuming they have to tangle with the Heat in the playoffs again, in this way: Wade and James no longer have to be Miami's only primary ballhandler (Chalmers is more of a spot-up shooter and occasional slasher, though he's bigger than Cole) and their defense just got even faster, if a bit smaller. Not that Cole is prepared to take on the league's reigning MVP head on, but top Heat executive Pat Riley adding more ammunition -- people around the league weren't unaware of Cole, but with the lockout, no summer league and an abbreviated preseason, the former mid-major star remained an unproven commodity -- to already-loaded Miami is something that, even this early in the season, should have the Bulls' attention.

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.