Bulls

Rose tries to outscore Westbrook, Thunder on CSN

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Rose tries to outscore Westbrook, Thunder on CSN

Monday, Dec. 6, 2010
Updated 1:38 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Player A averages 25.7 points per game. Player B scores 24.1. Player B dishes out 8.7 assists per game. Player A averages 8.1. Both players are point guards, drafted in 2007--Player A with the No.1 overall pick, Player B fourth--with concerns about their respective outside shooting abilities dogging them, despite optimism about how their explosiveness would translate to the NBA.

The two players--Bulls (10-8) All-Star Derrick Rose and Oklahoma City Thunder (14-7) point guard Russell Westbrook, if it's not obvious by now--used their shared summer stint with USA Basketball as a springboard for what many observers regarded as MVP-candidate level beginnings to this young season. A pair linked by their athletic gifts and a friendship initially forged by summer workouts together and having the same agent, Arn Tellem, Rose and Westbrook have emerged as not just two of the better young and up-and-coming players in the league, but two of the best players in the league, period.

Rose might be slightly ahead of schedule for his coronation as one the NBA's elite talents, but his path has been in the offing since he was a sophomore at Simeon Career Academy. Westbrook, on the other hand, took a far different route.

At under 6 feet tall before his junior year of high school, the Los Angeles native, wasn't even a household name in his own city during his prep days. But a growth spurt and a strong final campaign--the season in which he first started dunking, which is hard to imagine now, as Westbrook is one of the league's best leapers--led to his recruitment by colleges on the mid-major level until hometown UCLA took an interest in him that spring.

Playing with fellow future pros like Minnesota's Kevin Love and Indiana's Darren Collison, the obscure recruit saw scant playing time as a freshman. As a sophomore, he became the team's starting shooting guard (playing alongside Collison, a true point guard) and carved out a niche for himself as a defensive stopper and one of college basketball's best dunkers en route to leading the Bruins to a Final Four appearance.

Still, despite winning the Pac-10's defensive player of the year award, Westbrook's modest scoring numbers and lack of experience playing point guard--although an sophomore-year impressive trial run when Collison was sidelined to begin the season opened some NBA scout's eyes--many observers were shocked when the Thunder drafted him so high in 2007, even taking into consideration his off-the-charts figures in pre-draft combine athletic tests. As an NBA rookie, Westbrook was thrown into the fire as Oklahoma City's starting point guard, and although his turnovers and perimeter shooting weren't optimal, his defensive mindset, exciting game and long-term potential more than justified his selection.

Last season, Westbrook's game blossomed further, as he helped lead the Thunder into the playoffs, where they put a six-game scare into the eventual champion Lakers in the first round, coming one rebound away from forcing the series to a seventh game. Then, he beat the odds to make the FIBA World Championships gold-medal winning USA Basketball squad, serving as a defensive stopper, slasher and energy player, a vital role that recalled his off-the-ball UCLA days.

Now, Westbrook has taken his game to a new level. Superstar Kevin Durant is still the team's go-to scorer, but Westbrook has established himself as a more than adequate second option, often carrying the team as Durant has suffered through nagging injuries and increased defensive attention that has resulted in lower than expected shooting numbers to start the season. Westbrook still has occasional issues with turnovers (averaging four per contest) and isn't a proficient shooter (43.9 percent from the field, 25 percent from beyond the arc), but his relentlessly attacking style has earned him individual billing alongside Durant, instead of just being a member of the supporting cast.

In this era of great young point guards--veterans Chris Paul and Deron Williams are considered the cream of the crop, but Westbrook, Rose and Boston's Rajon Rondo (Wizards rookie John Wall might soon join the club) are either right on their heels or advancing past them, depending on who one asks--Westbrook is an interesting case. Unlike Rose, Paul or Williams, he's not his team's superstar or leading scorer, while Rondo's situation is different because not only is his scoring not the focal point of his game, but he plays with three Hall of Famers.

What differentiates Westbrook, however, is his defensive ability and rebounding. Rondo is considered an elite defender for his position and is an uncanny rebounder (Westbrook averages 5.6 boards a night himself, a gaudy total for a point guard), but Westbrook's size poses a different dilemma for opposing point guards; their styles are also completely different, as the unique Rondo is more of a savvy floor general, who picks apart defenses based on his highly-acclaimed personnel. The player Westbrook is most compared with, Rose, has obviously widened the gap between the pair as a shooter (the Chicago native is shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point territory and 46.2 percent overall), but playing next to Durant, outside marksmanship isn't as key for the Thunder point guard as it is for Rose, who is his team's top scoring threat.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma City will put up with his sometimes-woeful shot selection and less-frequent out-of-control forays into multiple defenders because Westbrook has proven to be a special talent, rewarding the foresight the organization had in drafting him and the hard work of head coach Scott Brooks and top assistant Maurice Cheeks (both former NBA point guards, not to mention current Bulls assistant Ron Adams) in helping to develop his game. The benefits hoped to be reaped by their patience include advancing past the first round of the playoffs next spring, the first of many All-Star appearances by Westbrook in his hometown come February and a rock-solid foothold as one the West's--if not the league's--upper-echelon teams.

Chicago has similar goals, and Monday night's rematch of both teams' season opener (a 106-95 Thunder win in Oklahoma City, in which Westbrook recorded 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists to Rose's 28 points, four boards and six assists) will be an important gauge for the team, as they look to build on Carlos Boozer's Windy City coming-out party in Saturday's exciting overtime win over Houston. But while the Bulls will likely marvel at Westbrook's similar explosiveness to Rose at the United Center--as well as the visitor's superior defense and rebounding ability--a Player A for Player B exchange, while somewhat even on paper (in theory, not an actual trade possibility), would never even cross the minds of the organization's braintrust.

Drafted a only few slots behind Rose, backing him up for USA Basketball, hopeful of equaling him as an All-Star (no small feat in the Western Conference, with Williams, Paul and an aging Steve Nash all near-locks to make the team, while Rose is most likely competing with Rondo for a starting spot in the annual classic), Westbrook still has a long way to go before he can touch Rose as his team's driving force--which might be impossible with the presence of Durant--and an orchestrator of his team's offense. There's nothing wrong with playing second fiddle, as Chicagoans well know from watching Scottie Pippen's career, but Rose has a chance to enter a rare stratosphere of players.

MVP candidate numbers and a realistic chance to be named MVP--Rose's much scoffed-at (not in Chicago, but elsewhere around the league) media day goal--are two different things and Rose, if he continues to perform at the same level and the Bulls follow his path to a top three or four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, has the opportunity to at least be in the conversation for the coveted hardware. From an Oklahoma City viewpoint, it can be debated that Westbrook could do the same thing, if not more, if put in the same position as Rose, which would surely be countered from Chicago by saying Rose would be thisclose to winning a championship if paired with the brilliance of Durant, as his true playmaking ability would better complement the reigning scoring champ more than Westbrook's shoot-first mentality.

But that is, to paraphrase an often-uttered Rose quote, "the beauty of the NBA." Instead of wondering what if, the summer workout partners will simply go head to head at the United Center in the second and final matchup of the season, as Rose will try to even the score in the win-loss column, while Westbrook will look to maintain bragging rights.

Maybe, one day in the future, they'll be able to play more than twice a year to provide a bigger sample size for all to judge--on a bigger stage, like the NBA Finals. For now, this will do.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

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.