Bulls

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Mavericks

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Mavericks

Howdy! The Bulls are back in action Friday night to take on the semi-resurgent (wins in four of five) Mavericks on NBC Sports Chicago+. Tune in all night, beginning with Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m. Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill will get you ready for tip! Here are three things to watch for when these two teams square off.

1. Dennis Smith: One of the league's most exciting rookies is playing some of his best basketball of the year as the Bulls come to town. Hampered by a hip injury earlier in the year - he sat for six games in December - Smith has averaged 18.0 points, 8.0 assists and 1.0 steal in his last three games. That included games against the Pelicans, Thunder and Warriors. Smith vs. Kris Dunn will be the matchup of the night.

2. Dirk Nowitzki: The Bulls will play Dallas again in March, but this could be your second-to-last chance at seeing Dirk Nowitzki. Now in his 20th season, Nowitzki is certainly coming close to the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he's still starting and puts together a few plays every night that reminds you why he became an all-time great. In 25.4 minutes per game this year he's averaging 12.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.

3. Lauri Markkanen: But hey, you get to watch Baby Dirk for years to come! Seriously, Markkanen has been a pleasure to watch in his rookie season and he's only getting better as the year has gone on. The Finnish 7-footer is averaging 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds over his last four games, and he's shooting 54 percent from the field and 43 percent from deep. That little lull to end 2017 didn't last long at all. Lauri is back and he should have a big night against a porous Mavericks defense.

Gregg Popovich reflects on Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna's tragic passing

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USA TODAY

Gregg Popovich reflects on Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna's tragic passing

In the wake of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna's tragic passing, touching tributes have abounded around the country and world. Last night and throughout pregame of a matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, the Bulls organization and fans decorated the United Center — inside and out — in Bryant's honor. 

Before the game, one which feels hollow in the scope of the events of the past 48 hours, Gregg Popovich offered reflections on his time knowing Bryant. Popovich's Spurs and Bryant's Lakers battled numerous times throughout the aughts and early 2010s, but he said his most poignant memories of Bryant go beyond the hardwood.

"He was somebody that I always respected just because he was so much more than a basketball player. He was highly intelligent, inquisitive, curious. We all know about his competitiveness, but he was a strategist. He focused. He was driven. And would have been successful no matter what he chose to do in life," Popovich said. "We all remember the on-court, but to me, the special parts will be the very few times I was able to spend time with him off the court and have discussions with him just one-on-one for a variety of different reasons.

"We all have special thoughts of him to varying degrees no matter whether you knew him a little bit or not at all, even the millions that admired him and cherished just knowing you could watch a game with him in it. You feel like he was your own. That's when happens when you're iconic and you're basically a superhero."

The impact of this loss is felt more deeply because of how many lives Bryant touched in his all-too-few 41 years.

"I think it's pretty obvious what Kobe's impact was on the league. Millions of people. On each team, the young kids on your team idolized him and looked up to him," Popovich said. "And the older ones knew him and talked to him and had relationships with him. So, no matter which one of those groups you belong to, it was a tragic shock, obviously, because it was so unexpected. You don't dream of things like that."

Popovich also extended further condolences to all families affected by the tragedy.

"There are no words to adequately describe such a horrific event, I don't think," he said. "You just offer your heartfelt sympathies to the Bryant family and to all the other families, and all we can all do is just hope that at some point in life they find some peace and some understanding. That's all you can do."

The Spurs went on as scheduled for a game with the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, one which took place mere hours after news broke of Bryant's passing. It was one of eight games to take place that night, all wracked by grief that isn't likely to subside soon.

"I don't think anybody was," Popovich said when asked if he felt they were able to play their best game so soon after learning the news. "It didn't matter whether it was us or Toronto, I think everybody was in a little bit of a fog, which was expected.

"I think it'll still take some time, especially for the guys that knew him the best. To get back whole, just mentally and psychologically, emotionally more than anything. It's a tough thing."

Tonight, Jim Boylen said the Bulls and Spurs plan to honor Bryant with 8- and 24-second violations to start the game. The Bulls will also show a tribute video.

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Bulls VP John Paxson recalls 2004 free agent meeting with Kobe Bryant

Bulls VP John Paxson recalls 2004 free agent meeting with Kobe Bryant

With the United Center honoring Kobe Bryant on the outside, the Bulls and John Paxson continued to pay tribute to the late Lakers star on the inside.

“First of all, obviously this is a really tough time for our game given what happened (Sunday),” Paxson said, referencing the helicopter crash that claimed Bryant, his daughter and seven others. “I think it goes without saying that Kobe Bryant was one of the great players in the history of our game. So much of our thoughts last 24-plus hours have been about his family, the other families, what they all must be going through.

“Events like this show how connected people in sport can be, with not only the fan base but those of us in the game. You didn’t have to have the greatest type of connection, but just the game itself means so much to people and the respect that the great ones have, you don’t see it very often. So you appreciate it. So it’s a really sad day and a really sad time for the league. And I know just seeing some of our young kids in (the locker room) and some of the guys who have been so influenced by him over the years, you can tell they’re shaken up. You’ve seen that all around the league the last 24 hours and it’s been really powerful.”

The Bulls planned a video tribute to Bryant and 24 seconds of silence. Signage of him is most everywhere outside and inside the building, including on the scoreboard. Coach Jim Boylen and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich agreed on 8- and 24-second violations to open the game, honoring the two numbers he wore.

In 2004, Paxson and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf flew to Newport Beach, Calif., to meet with Bryant and his then-agent Rob Pelinka to pitch him in free agency. Pelinka, now the Lakers president of basketball operations, is a Lake Forest native.

“We were fortunate that we were given that opportunity. I could tell he had an enormous amount of respect for Jerry and Jerry’s relationship with Michael (Jordan) and the brand that the Bulls are,” Paxson said. “The things that always stand out to me after that were first of all how smart of a person he was---we knew how smart of a player he was---and how mature he was even at that time.

“And the other thing was, in talking about coming to Chicago, it was six years after Michael left. Most guys didn’t want to follow that or have to try to live up to it. What he expressed to us was he wanted to embrace that if it happened. He wanted that challenge.

“I’ve said this many, many times about Michael. I had an opportunity to be around him for such a long time and seeing that rare competitiveness. The closest I’ve seen---and I obviously wasn’t involved in it---but you could just tell that Kobe Bryant had that same thing. It’s some gene in you that is rare. And it’s why there are a lot of really good players---you could even say great players---but there are few you could put in the greatest category. Obviously, he’s one of those.”

Paxson has two sons and spoke to the family aspect of the tragedy.

“It's just awful,” he said. “You know, anybody who has children, no matter what age, you think about that and it's just hard. Anything like this, it's just so unexpected. Before (Sunday), it's unimaginable. Families are involved, friends.

“Over the years in our business, Rob Pelinka is a guy that I've gotten to know very well. And I know that in our time, even when we went back to meeting over the years, his reverence for the person Kobe was genuine. And so it's hard to wrap your mind around stuff like this.”

At Bryant’s last United Center appearance in February 2016, he was spotted in a pregame hallway.

“He was coming from working out or lifting before the game and I caught his eye and said hello to him. And he came over and gave me a hug,” Paxson said. “He remembered our meeting. Just little things like that, I obviously didn't have much of a connection. But through people (like) Phil Jackson I did. We have a guy on our staff (director of sports performance) Chip Schaefer who spent 12 years with Kobe. I've talked to him and it's just hard for people.”

Paxson sent Jackson a text message on Sunday.

“He was one of the first people on my mind because of his relationship with Kobe,” he said. “I would never speak to the people who were there every day saw. But you can just tell that the guy worked at his game relentlessly, had that mindset. I did hear a quote about him (Monday), him speaking that said he always wanted to outwork his potential. And I think the great lesson for young players today is you can talk about work, but you have to do it. The price of success doesn't come easy. But this is more than that. This is one of the greatest players of our time. And that's hard.” 

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