Bulls

Bulls won't let loss to Bucks define them, despite familiar fault-lines

Bulls won't let loss to Bucks define them, despite familiar fault-lines

Let’s not bury the lede here: Reality struck the United Center Monday night. Antlers first.

The Bulls staved it off for as long as they could. Down 11 to the Bucks after the first quarter, they responded with a red-hot 8-for-13 3-point shooting second and trailed 55-52 at the break. Coby White was humming, Lauri Markkanen was piecing together a second straight solid performance and the arena was alive. Some level of optimism, however cautious, was palpable. 

The Bucks quashed that, at least for a night, with a third-quarter-opening onslaught that saw their lead swell from three to 16 in less than five minutes. They didn’t look back, taking the game 123-102.

“I thought they punched us pretty hard in the third, took control of the game,” Jim Boylen said. “We gave up layups and dunks and open threes. I thought we hung our head a little bit, we haven't done that in a while, we've played through those situations, and I thought tonight we did [hang our heads].”

The signs of the eventual outcome were there: Though the Bulls put up 52 points and shot 10-for-24 (41.7%) from 3-point range in the first half, an 11-for-31 clip from inside the arc loomed ominous. As did attempting zero free throws to the Bucks’ 15, despite persistent ref-lobbying from just about everyone in a red jersey.

“You really want me to comment on that? Well, I'm not gonna,” Boylen said of the free throw disparity. “I appreciate the question, but I'm not gonna. I don't make that kind of money to give it away.”

Another hint at the Bulls’ ultimate fate was tallying only three fastbreak points in the game’s first two quarters. By night’s end, a team that depends on generating turnovers and transition opportunities for offense parlayed 18 Bucks turnovers into nine points.

“Did think we forced turnovers again, didn’t convert like we liked,” Boylen said. 

Give the Bucks credit there. At 30-5, they own the best record in the NBA, as well as the league’s No. 1-rated defense and No. 2-rated offense. This is more than a "quality" opponent. The Bucks' +13.2 average point-differential defies the very fabric of our reality, and their general competency didn’t allow the Bulls any cracks or soft spots to exploit.

“They're long, they're experienced, they're smart, so they understand the game,” Kris Dunn said. “For us, we just have to be a little more aggressive. We play our best basketball when we get stops and get out in transition, and we didn't get to do that tonight. We didn't get the stops that we need, and it's hard to score on a team like that that has a really good half-court defense.”

Dunn also called the Bucks the more physical group and stressed that urgency pervades the Bulls' locker room — both themes that ring familiar. As do these: The Bulls are now 1-12 against teams with at or above .500 records this season; for the 22nd time in 34 games, the Bulls were outrebounded (59-43) by their opponent; and for the 26th time, their opponent attempted more free throws than they did.

Shooting 38.6% on 44 attempts from the 3-point line is great, but not when you go 23-for-63 from inside the arc. In the third quarter that decided the game, the Bucks outscored the Bulls 40-25, shooting 71.4% (62.5% from three) to the hosts' 37% (20% from distance).

“There's gonna be ups and downs but our style of play and our execution has to still be there,” Zach LaVine said before the team’s matchup against the Hawks on Saturday. “We can’t just rely on making shots."

Again, credit the Bucks' transcendence on both ends of the floor (especially their paint-packing defensive strategy), but tonight remains a step in the wrong direction as far as that point of emphasis is concerned. The Bucks hit them hard and the Bulls ran out of counters.

“Everybody's pissed off. You should be,” Dunn said. “We've been playing well and I feel like Milwaukee gave us a little humble pie. We gotta be able to take that and go back to the drawing board and get back to work.”

All of this isn't as much a referendum as it is a reminder. After a month of either beating up on bad teams or competing with good ones — and building a reputation of a top-tier defense — it's a loss that, in many ways, defies the values these Bulls had been establishing. But that doesn't mean it has to define them. 

"It's definitely tough," Dunn said. "Tonight we weren't us."

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From Bulls to Spurs, why NBA dynasties should be savored as they pass

From Bulls to Spurs, why NBA dynasties should be savored as they pass

The pandemic-induced NBA pause featured the running of the Bulls, an ESPN-produced treat that detailed “The Last Dance” and a 1990s dynasty to remember.

The NBA restart featured the elimination of the Spurs. A so-called “The Last Stand” if you will. Their record-tying, 22-season playoff streak died on the Disney World campus on Thursday.

Savor these streaks when they occur. They don’t come around often, even if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reacted the way you thought he would about the dissolution of his dynasty.

“I don’t dwell on the past,” Popovich said. “I don’t know who won the baseball championship from year to year. Four years ago, I don’t know who won the NBA championship. That stuff is totally unimportant. What’s important is the moment. You do what you gotta do and you move on.”

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Just wait until the ever-reclusive Tim Duncan talks on the documentary that one day should come on the Spurs. Let’s just say Michael Jordan memes are probably safe.

Three Spurs who started Thursday’s loss to the Jazz weren’t even born the last time the franchise missed the playoffs. The run tied the 76ers’ streak from 1950 to 1971, which they began as the Syracuse Nationals before moving.

Us media types like to document such things. I mean, we watch sports to witness greatness, right? And what’s not great about this?

Five NBA championships. 10 Western Conference finals appearances. Six 60-win seasons. 13 50-win seasons. The passing of the torch from David Robinson to Duncan to Kawhi Leonard, with longstanding greatness from Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Popovich mixed in for good measure.

As "The Last Dance" reminded a whole new generation that didn't live it, the Bulls' dynasty ended off the court. Age, attrition, salary cap concerns and the natural evolution of power, money and ego combined to leave Jordan's jumper to win the 1998 Finals as the enduring memory.

The Spurs never possessed the megawatt, marketing starpower of an athlete like Jordan. Even with the international success of the NBA and players like Ginobili from Argentina and Parker from France, they never seemed to dominate headlines outside small-market San Antonio.

And unlike the tidy, separate three-peats amassed by the Bulls, they spaced out their five Finals triumphs in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. But like perennials popping, they always seemed to be there come spring.

These playoffs are taking place in August, September and October, a nod to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic-paused season. They will begin next week without Popovich and the Spurs.

But fear not: The last time they landed in the lottery in 1997, things worked out pretty well. They won it and drafted Duncan.

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For Bulls fans, Michael Porter Jr.’s breakout stings, but comes with silver lining

For Bulls fans, Michael Porter Jr.’s breakout stings, but comes with silver lining

However the NBA structures its bubble awards ballot — say “bubble ballot” ten times fast — Michael Porter Jr. should find his way in in some capacity.

The Denver Nuggets’ second-year wing (who’s technically still rookie-eligible) has fully burst onto the scene under the bright lights of ESPN’s World Wide of Sports Complex. Porter's started all seven of the Nuggets’ seeding games so far, averaging 22 points and 8.6 rebounds with 55.1/42.2/93.1 shooting splits in 33.3 minutes per contest. Minutes limits and defensive critiques have melted away with increased opportunity. His outside stroke, effortless athleticism and superhuman length have popped. The training wheels are off.

 

For Nuggets fans, Porter’s breakout is a coronation — a long-awaited glimpse at the potential final piece to a deep, talented and precocious roster vaulting to the highest echelon of contention. For basketball fans, the bloom of a potential star is always a thrill.

For Bulls fans, it’s pain. Dull, throbbing and all-too-familiar pain.

The answer to why requires a stroll down memory lane, all the way back to the 2018 NBA Draft Combine held in Chicago. Though he didn’t participate in any basketball drills, Porter's 6-foot-10, 3/4-inch height and 7-foot, 1/4-inch wingspan wowed for a wing of such innate bounce and tact. Kevin Durant comparisons abounded in the analyst pool. Meanwhile, the Bulls sat in on at least one of Porter's pro days, presumably expressing some level of interest. 

And if there was interest from the team side, it appeared to be mutual.

"I feel like I'd fit in great with those guys," Porter said (via Chicago Tribune) of potentially joining the Bulls. "They have a great core, a lot of young, athletic guys. And they're kind of looking for small forward."

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Indeed, the Bulls entered the 2018 draft with only Paul Zipser under contract in the way of traditional small forwards. The marriage of fit and talent was all too perfect. 

But injury flags stopped Porter from being a slam-dunk selection. After exiting high school the No. 1 prospect in his class, he missed all but three games of his freshman year at Missouri because of back surgery conducted in November 2017. That operation — a microdiscectomy of two spinal discs – invited valid questions regarding Porter’s durability, both in the long- and short-term. 

Despite inarguably owning the talent and skill set of a top five prospect, Porter fell past the Bulls, and 12 others, all the way to the Nuggets at No. 14. He sat out 2018-19 rehabbing his back and, pre-bubble, has been on a gradual ramp-up plan this season. The reasons behind his slip are completely reasonable; still, it’s one that has the potential to haunt many organizations for a long time.

The 2018 draft could go down as one of the more talent-flush in recent memory. Also selected in the top 14 that year: already-proven superstars in Luka Doncic and Trae Young, fast-rising wunderkins in Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and other incredibly promising talents from Mikal Bridges to Miles Bridges to Collin Sexton and beyond. There are no busts, in the conventional sense, from that lottery. Even Jerome Robinson helped net the Los Angeles Clippers Marcus Morris at the 2020 trade deadline.

So Bulls fans, and the team itself, shouldn’t kick themselves too hard about their selection of Wendell Carter Jr. (he belongs in the above paragraph, but I was waiting for the reveal) No. 7 overall. 

Yes, Carter has played only 87 games through two professional seasons — just 32 more than the injury-plagued Porter. But his defense has translated to the professional level, as has his advanced basketball IQ and rebounding prowess; already, he’s shown the potential to be stalwart at the most important defensive position in the game. 

What’s more, Carter averaged nearly a double-double in his second season, has proven a better-than-average finisher, and with necessary tweaks, him blossoming into a facilitating hub and outside shooting threat on the offensive end isn’t far-fetched. Toning down the team’s trapping coverages in the pick-and-roll could revive gaudy shot-blocking figures from his rookie campaign, though Carter can thrive in just about any defensive context. 

Subtler skills than that of Porter, to be sure. But valuable, still.

Now, a lot of the above is rooted in projection. Carter has yet to appear in more than 44 games in a season, and those offensive forecasts, specifically, might be optimistic. But lauding Porter requires a level of projection, too. Before the bubble, he had yet to play in 30 minutes in an NBA game, and was averaging 16.4 on the season. Held up against the flashes of brilliance, his development has been and may continue to be painstakingly slow-moving. Injury concerns persist for both, but, given the small sample size and the fact that Carter's injuries have largely been trauma-induced, Porter’s concerns remain greater.

Bottom line: Porter's ceiling is astronomical. Higher than Carter’s. That’s always been the case, and his successes will forever come with a little sting for Bulls fans. But it doesn’t make the Carter choice the wrong one (though the rationale of filling the wing need with Chandler Hutchison at No. 22 hasn't panned out). He's a promising, young two-way big, and continued progression feels a reaonsable expectation.

That won’t assuage all, and it’s fair if it doesn’t. Winning takes star power in this league, and outside of Zach LaVine, the Bulls are sorely lacking in that department. There, Porter could have been a salve down the road. And the process behind the choice — high-floor over high-ceiling, to oversimplify — is emblematic of a front office philosophy the Bulls and its fans are anxious to leave behind.

Which is why, as far as silver linings go, it should register as downright shimmery that the Bulls now employ an integral member of the front office that snared Porter as executive vice president of basketball operations in Arturas Karnisovas. Whatever your opinion on his handling of the Jim Boylen situation, Karnisovas’ solid standing in Denver’s collaborative, forward-thinking front office is well-documented, especially as a talent evaluator. That front office staffed the Nuggets’ current roster, which is dotted with multi-skilled pieces of every variety. 

The superstar, Nikola Jokic, was a second-round pick. So was key reserve Monte Morris, and fellow bubble standout Bol Bol. P.J. Dozier, who narrowly missed spearheading an unlikely victory for the Nuggets’ backups over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, was plucked off the G League scrap heap. Jamal Murray and Porter were lottery picks (Porter being the last in the lottery), but Torrey Craig was an undrafted find. Will Barton and Jerami Grant came aboard via shrewd, if unheralded, trades. Paul Millsap is the biggest free-agent signing in Nuggets history, and on the short list of their best.

Top to bottom, it’s a versatile, well-constructed roster — and done in admirable fashion, especially considering the team’s ability to retain talent. Porter is the final piece to title contention. 

Could he have been that for the Bulls? Possibly. One way or the other, his will be a career of countless variables, and it’ll never be entirely possible to say if everything would have broken the same in Chicago. 

But if the Bulls’ future ends up bright, it’ll be pointless to look back.

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