Bulls

Weight from previous years came crashing down in one night for Bulls

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Weight from previous years came crashing down in one night for Bulls

LeBron James walked happily through the back hallways of the United Center on the way to his session with the media, chanting the name of an unlikely hero who took center stage on the most unlikely of stages.

Fortysomething feet behind James and Matthew Dellavedova was Joakim Noah, walking slowly toward the exit before exchanging actual pleasantries with Kendrick Perkins and Kyrie Irving, telling Irving to take care of his ailing body this postseason as the Cleveland Cavaliers moved onto the Eastern Conference Finals, the first team to clinch an appearance.

Two hours earlier, Noah uttered a four-letter word to himself after teammate Tony Snell fouled J.R. Smith while shooting a 3-pointer in the first half.

It wasn’t “funk”, although it could’ve described the game-long lull the Bulls were in, as their predictable offensive famine led to frustration then lastly, finality as the United Center faithful began leaving in droves when the Bulls couldn’t muster an answer against a barely-hanging on Cavaliers team in the third quarter.

The wide spread that will be etched in the minds of Bulls fans was nothing more than a confirmation of what became evident four days ago.

[MORE: Lifeless Bulls fall to Cavaliers in series-clincher]

There comes a point in every critical playoff series where it becomes clear to everyone, at least the participants, as to whom the better team is. That moment became apparent in Game 4, when the Bulls couldn’t put the struggling Cavaliers away early in the fourth quarter.

The series was lost long before James’ fadeaway jumper at the buzzer and his exemplary Game 5 performance only hammered home the fact in case there were a few who still didn’t believe.

By the time the emotion wore off late in the first quarter Thursday, the Bulls were already spent, having given the best they could muster. And the Cavaliers could sense a team finally on empty, finally with no more snap in their punches after having an endless supply for so long.

It wasn’t desperation or even panic for the Bulls. That moment for Noah was less about Snell and more about acceptance and submission, not only about the series but this era—one that seems headed for a change in direction on the sidelines, and plenty of tacit finger-pointing between now and October.

In the days ahead, there will be conversations about the Bulls’ effort in the second half, where they appeared to be in quicksand and unable or unwilling to rise up in the effort to put together a winning performance.

In the end, the task was too difficult for a team that took too many punches, both physical and psychological, finally deciding “no mas” when the Cavs appeared to figure them out and weren’t backing down.

“I like the fight in our guys. It was an up and down year, but there was no quit,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whose future is first on the docket of speculation. “They hung tough and found a way to win games. We wanted to give it our best shot and it did not work out for us.”

Perhaps Noah could leave the building breathing a sigh of relief for the first time in a long time, as the Cavaliers mercifully put the Bulls out of their misery in an underwhelming blowout to end the Bulls’ champagne hopes.

[RELATED: LeBron lauds Delly's, Thompson's efforts in Cavs' Game 6 win]

The relief could likely come from the definitiveness in which the Cavaliers dismissed the Bulls, doing it in a manner that used to be so Bulls-like and also extinguishing the long-held beliefs of the past few years that stated if they were fully healthy, they could take down whichever team James was playing on.

The evidence was startling and more importantly for the tortured of heart, non-negotiable. It was the Cavaliers who were short-handed, prompting Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy to say the most dangerous animal was a wounded animal—and nobody wearing white jerseys took heed to the warning.

Usually it’s the Bulls who have to deal with such adversity, relying on no-names to boost them to unpredictable finishes, but nobody expected Dellavedova, James Jones or J.R. Smith to be the ones to take the Bulls out with such ease.

But instead of a charging Cavaliers team that looked too strong, the weight of expectations, of unfulfilled promise likely burdened the Bulls after Game 5—their last, best shot, that again, came up short.

To pick themselves off the mat appears so easy in theory, evidenced by the San Antonio Spurs bouncing back from a debilitating loss in the NBA Finals in 2013 to romping past the opponent that dished out the heartbreak 12 months later.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

But the Spurs were without controversy and possessing the muscle memory from championship wins to know what it was going to take to get back—something these Bulls haven’t experienced.

It was an outcome Bulls fans prayed for, to finally overcome the boogeyman with twenty-three emblazoned across his chest—but all they know is heartbreak and heartache, especially from that man.

“They played better than us and they won the series,” Pau Gasol said. “They did a much better job than we did. They were in a close-out situation which gives you extra confidence and a burst. They decided to move on.”

For once, though, they can go into an offseason not complaining about the Big Bad Boogeyman from Cleveland (or Miami), or pondering how they’d fare if Lady Luck were on their side.

But what do you do when there’s no more “what if”?

You have to deal with reality—and that is much more difficult to fathom than fantasy.

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.