Bulls

With backs against the wall, Cavs now need LeBron's best

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With backs against the wall, Cavs now need LeBron's best

LeBron James sat in the far corner of the visitor's locker room Friday night, wrapped in ice, draped in towels, and holding court with his teammates.

Surrounded by James at their respective lockers were Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, three members of the Cavaliers' core who have embraced expanded roles in the recent days and weeks. The conversation, of which James did most of the talking, between teammates fluctuated between laughs and seemingly thorough analysis of the Game 3 that had ended just minutes earlier on a miraculous Derrick Rose 3-pointer.

Such a scenario - James instilling his wisdom on teammates - is far from uncommon, but given the circumstances of the Cavaliers facing a 2-1 deficit with a banged up core, the onus has been put on the game's best player both to perform at his highest level and get the most out of a group that hasn't yet been tested in this fashion.

On the surface James' performance in Friday night's 99-96 loss was some serious heavy lifting. In 44 minutes he scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 14 assists. Those 14 assists translated into 34 points, meaning James had a hand in 61 of Cleveland's 96 points.

[RELATED: Rose reaches new peak with game-winner]

Still, as if often the case in defeat, his blemishes took center stage. With Kyrie Irving nursing a sore foot, James was asked to handle the ball more and responded with seven turnovers. His jump shot failed him once again - he was 3-for-15 outside the painted area - and he missed a point-blank layup that would have given the Cavs a one-point lead in the game's final minute. For all James does, when his team loses the spotlight will always focus on what he didn't do.

"We have to be better," James said before narrowing his answer. "I have to be better."

Though they trail the series heading into Sunday's Game 4, the Cavaliers appear to have made the right adjustments around James to set themselves up for success. James hasn't played much on the interior as the second big man since Game 1 - with the later stages of Game 3 being an exception, when both teams went with a small-ball lineup - Tristan Thompson has arguably been the Cavs' second best player since entering the starting lineup in Game 2, and Matthew Dellavedova has proven to be more than capable on the second unit. J.R. Smith's return from a two-game suspension gave Cleveland additional depth in the backcourt, and the Cavs found their optimal closing lineup of Irving/Shumpert/Smith/James/Thompson despite Friday's loss.

But with Kevin Love already sidelined and Irving attempting to fight through pain that, with one aggravation, turns him into simply a "decoy," the already-thin Cavaliers can make all the right adjustments and still not have enough if James isn't in prime form. Against a Bulls team touting two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, a league MVP with optimal confidence in Derrick Rose and a feisty Joakim Noah doing all the intangibles, adjustments won't mean anything unless is James is playing at his best.

[RELATED: Cavs' chances could hinge on Irving's injured foot]

The two-time champion still hasn't shot better than 50 percent from the field in any playoff game this season, and he's shooting just 39 percent from the field in three games against the Bulls. He made one of his seven 3-point attempts Friday night while having to work for every bucket against Jimmy Butler, who has been able to focus more of his attention to guarding James than scoring with Rose catching fire in Games 1 and 3.

And yet with Love on the sideline, Irving a non-factor after aggravating his injury and James shooting 32 percent from the field the Cavaliers were 3 seconds away from forcing overtime. Contributions from Dellavedova and Smith off the bench, Thompson's work on the glass and timely 3-point shooting had Cleveland in position to steal Game 3 on a night in which they should have been blown out. That spoke volumes to James.

"We just kept fighting, and that’s what I love about this team," he said. "We just kept fighting and gave ourselves a chance at the end."

The biggest storyline surrounding the Cavaliers entering the playoffs was their lack of postseason experience. Irving, Love and Thompson all were making their second-season debuts, while Shumpert, Smith and Mozgov had never gone into a postseason with a target on their backs. None of those players had ever faced a deficit in a hostile environment like the one they'll face on Sunday, needing a win in Game 4 to avoid a 3-1 deficit heading back to Cleveland.

[RELATED: Cavaliers 'got to live with' Rose's game-winner]

The good news for James is that he's been in this position before, and he's thrived in it. Thirteen times a James-led team has trailed in a playoff series with the following game on the road. A young James began his career 0-5 in such games. But starting in 2010, the year he made his first trip to the Finals, he's 7-1 on the road when trailing in a series. And in those most recent eight games, James has averaged an eye-popping 33.4 points on 56 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in nearly 43 minutes per game. One of the game's smartest players knows when his back's against the wall, and he has the ability to take over a game when necessary.

That time is now. But more than just his own readiness, he has the confidence in the rest of his group to answer the call Sunday.

"I already know how we’re going to respond: the same way we did in Game 2 [a 15-point Cavs win]. Will that result in a win? We don’t know. But I don’t have any doubt of how we will play on Sunday," James said confidently. "We’re going to give ourselves a chance."

That chance will begin, and end, with James.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Hub Arkush (670 The Score/Pro Football Weekly), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Lauren Comitor (The Athletic) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Manny Machado Mania continues in Chicago. Do the Cubs even need to trade for him to win the World Series this year?

Ricky Renteria has to bench another player for not hustling. Is this becoming a problem on the South Side?

Plus, Lauri Markkanen is named to the All-Rookie team. Could he be the centerpiece of a trade if the Bulls want to acquire a superstar or move up in the draft? 

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

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USA TODAY

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

Bulls Twitter went on high alert after last week's national report that the front office had made a "promise" to draft Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison if he was still on the board at No. 22 in the first round. Weren't the Bulls supposed to be interested in SF prospects like Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges with their own first round selection? Did a "promise" to Hutchison mean the Bulls would go with Wendell Carter, Trae Young or Collin Sexton at No. 7?

The simple answer is the Bulls haven't made any final decisions on either pick. They still plan to bring the top prospects in for workouts and interviews before June 21 and will continue to take a close look at players likely to be available in the 18-30 range.

And, like any professional sports franchise, the Bulls aren't about to confirm or deny they've made a commitment to Hutchison or any other player. Drafts are fluid, and invariably players will rise and fall throughout the workout/interview process as teams try to get their boards lined up for the big night.

The main reason a team will make a "promise" to a player is to eliminate his incentive to work out for other franchises. In the case of Hutchison, he's obviously received assurances from a team or teams that he will be drafted in the first round. Hutchison cancelled his plans to participate in last week's NBA Draft Combine, and most likely will only work out for teams drafting ahead of the franchise that said they would select him.

Jerry Krause would famously try to hide his interest in players he coveted in a particular year and persuade them not to work out for other teams. The best example came in 1987 when a little known player from Central Arkansas named Scottie Pippen became an obsession for Krause, and the Bulls GM tried everything in his power to keep Pippen under wraps. Problem is, Pippen did attend the scouting combine and quickly became the hot topic among NBA scouts and executives. It took some intense work on Krause's part to arrange for the draft night trade that brought Pippen to Chicago for Olden Polynice. Krause also added Horace Grant later in that same draft, and the foundation was built for the Bulls' first three championship teams.

So, the idea of a team making a "promise" to a player they like is certainly nothing new. What's important to understand is that doesn't guarantee the team will follow through on that promise when they're on the clock. Back in 2013, the Bulls got word to Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng they were interested in taking him with their No. 20 pick in round one. But when the Bulls were on the clock, the front office decided they would rather have New Mexico swingman Tony Snell who was ranked higher on their draft board. The Bulls drafted Snell, much to Dieng and his agent's surprise. Dieng wound up going to Utah with the next pick and was traded to Minnesota. He's still with that franchise today, although in a reduced role after the Timberwolves signed Taj Gibson as a free agent last summer.

With so much uncertainty in this year's draft, it seems unlikely the Bulls would "promise" to select Hutchison five weeks before the selection process was going to begin. Hutchison and his agent most likely received assurances from NBA executives that he would be drafted in the 20-30 range, and that was enough to get him to drop out of the combine. But just like in 2013, if the Bulls see a player ranked higher on their draft board fall to 22, that's the player they're going to take.

Hutchison is a good prospect, a 3-and-D player who would fit well with the team the Bulls are building. But he's also a 22-year-old senior without the upside of some of the younger prospects who might be available with the Bulls' pick late in Round 1. Both Hutchison and the Bulls have to reserve the right to protect their own best interests. Hutchison will most likely agree to work out for teams drafting earlier than 22, and he'll have to understand if the Bulls decide to go a different direction on draft night, no matter what kind of previous discussions his agent may have had with the front office.

At this point in the pre-draft process, a "promise" can only be seen as a team's legitimate interest in a given player and an indicator of how the first round is likely to play out. But a lot can and will change before Phoenix goes on the clock on June 21.

Combine notes

Since most of the projected first round picks do little or nothing at the combine, it's left to the second-round guys to try to improve their draft stock with a strong showing in the scrimmage games. Last year, it was Kyle Kuzma working his way into the first round with a dazzling performance at the combine, and this year, the big winner might be Villanova shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo.

The NCAA Tournament hero impressed everyone with his athleticism on both ends and his ability to knock down open shots. DiVincenzo told me his 31-point performance in the title game against Michigan convinced him he had what it takes to apply for early entry, and his strong showing last week probably convinced him to hire an agent and remain in the draft.

Much like Kuzma, DiVincenzo had been projected as a likely second-round pick before the combine. Now he's looked at as a probable first rounder, going somewhere in the 20-30 range, which means he's likely headed to a good team that can ease his transition to the pro game. Not bad for a guy who came off the bench most of the season for the eventual NCAA champs and probably never imagined he would be leaving early for the NBA until that magical night in San Antonio.

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Other players who improved their draft stock last week include USC combo guard De’Anthony Melton, Maryland swingman Kevin Huerter, Tulane shooting guard Melvin Frazier, Cincinnati swingman Jacob Evans and another Villanova product, point guard Jalen Brunson.

Brunson didn't play in the scrimmages in Chicago, but he showed well in the physical testing, displaying the kind of athleticism every team is looking for at the point guard position. It looks like Brunson will definitely be a first round pick.

Similar story for Evans, who averaged a modest 13 points a game for a top 10 Cincinnati team, but impressed the NBA execs at the combine with his tenacious defensive play and offensive potential. Evans could be a possibility for the Bulls at 22.

Maryland's Huerter showed scouts he's more than just a standstill 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-6 sophomore averaged just under 15 points a game last season, shooting almost 42 percent from 3-point range. Huerter's solid play at the combine gives him a chance to be drafted at the end of Round 1.

Frazier also showed enough in games last week to have his name called among the top 30 picks. At 6-foot-6, he has excellent size at the shooting guard position. Frazier averaged just under 16 points a game during his junior season at Tulane, shooting almost 56 percent from the field.

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But the most interesting story involves Melton, who was held out by USC last season because of his connection to the FBI's investigation of corruption in college basketball. Melton maintained his innocence all along, and said the university was just doing what it had to do, fearing additional trouble with the NCAA over allegations a friend of Melton's had accepted money to try to steer Melton to an agent.

Still, even without playing competitively last season, Melton probably cemented a first round selection with his play at the combine. The 6-foot-4 combo guard flashed on both ends, scoring 15 points in a game last Friday playing alongside DiVincenzo in the backcourt.

Melton told USA Today he compares himself to other two-way standouts like Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard and Avery Bradley. That's some pretty impressive company. Melton might be worth the investment of that No. 22 pick by the Bulls.

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Kudos to all the players who took part in the two days of media interviews last week. Almost all of them came off poised and well prepared. Among the top ten picks, I was especially impressed with Michael Porter Jr., who patiently answered all the questions about his back surgery and confidently said he considered himself the best player in the draft without sounding cocky.

Of course, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young also proclaimed themselves the best player in the draft, and projected top 10 picks Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Collin Sexton also came across as supremely confident.

The latest Basketball Insiders Mock Draft has the Bulls taking Bamba at 7 and Chandler Hutchison at 22, which would make the front office and a lot of Bulls fans very happy. But just to show you the wide range in how draft experts are evaluating the top prospects, Basketball Insiders currently has Jackson Jr. going 11 to Charlotte, and it's hard for me to imagine him staying on the board past four.

Brace yourself for all kinds of wild speculation over the next four weeks.

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Finally, May 22 turned out to be quite a day for Lauri Markkanen. Not only is Markkanen celebrating his 21st birthday, but he found out he was voted to the NBA's All-Rookie first team after averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.

Markkanen joined Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma from the extremely talented 2017-18 rookie class.

And the second team isn't bad either with Dennis Smith Jr., Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Given Markkanen's talent and work ethic, it's very easy to see him making multiple All-Star Game appearances down the line. The Bulls can only hope they come up with another foundation player like Markkanen when they draft seventh for the second year in a row.