Bulls fight but come up short in series-turning loss to Cavs


Bulls fight but come up short in series-turning loss to Cavs

At some point the powder keg was going to explode, after four games of “almosts” and “maybes," the Bulls and Cavs were bound for a meeting of the minds and bodies.

And LeBron James was due for an explosion, with the only question for the Bulls being could they absorb the haymaker and fight back.

Well, James took his shots and the Bulls buckled but didn’t fall, standing emboldened yet undermanned in a hostile atmosphere in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Bodies were thrown, legs were used as weapons of defense and aggression as tempers reached an all-time high for this series.

[MORE BULLS: Bulls' Nikola Mirotic hits half-court buzzer beater]

When the dust settled and the feet were planted firmly back on solid ground, the Bulls found themselves not able to do enough down the stretch in a 106-101 loss, putting them down in the series, 3-2, and 48 minutes away from elimination.

James emerged from his inefficient slumber, putting up 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, three steals and no turnovers in a tour-de-force 40-minute performance.

It was expected he wouldn’t continue the trend that had him on track for his third-worst shooting playoff series of his career, and he attacked the Bulls, seemingly all night long.

“The guy’s a great player,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can defend a great player very well, and he can still make (shots). I thought we were a step late with our help (defense) today. We’ve got to correct it.”

[WATCH BULLS: Derrick Rose: 'I love the way we fought back']

Jimmy Butler, James’ primary defender, rebounded from a foul-plagued first half to score 29, including a triple with 1:18 left to cut the Cavaliers lead to 101-99.

And after resiliently fighting from a 17-point deficit with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls had a chance to take the lead as both of their big guns had chances to apply serious pressure to the buckling Cavaliers.

But Derrick Rose, in the midst of missing 11 straight and 15 of his last 17 shots, saw his fast break layup blocked out of bounds by James with 48.8 seconds left, and Butler’s open triple off an inbounds pass came up short when play resumed.

“I love the way we fought back,” said Rose, who started off hitting five of seven but finished 7-of-24. “I think we had a crack at it, we just didn’t execute right. We had a couple chances to tie and didn’t knock shots down.”

[WATCH BULLS: Thibodeau: We gotta play for 48 minutes]

Even then, they allowed an old bugaboo to emerge on the ensuing possessions, not finishing defensive possessions and giving up turnovers at the most inopportune times.

Iman Shumpert came up with an offensive rebound off a James miss with 19.9 seconds left and the Bulls trailing by two, as the Bulls’ best chance at completing a rousing comeback ended at the most fundamental of mistakes — controlling the glass.

“Big play, big play,” Thibodeau said. “When you look at the same, it comes down to the rebound there, the open shot.”

On the Bulls’ final meaningful possession trailing by four, Joakim Noah tried to thread the needle to Butler with James guarding him, passing it out of Butler’s outstretched arms and out of bounds with 11.9 seconds left.

[WATCH BULLS: Bulls Postgame Live crew reacts to the Bulls' Game 5 loss vs. Cavs]

James and Kyrie Irving, who though supposedly battling injuries to his right foot and left knee looked healthy as ever on the way to scoring 25 points with five assists, helped kick start the Cavaliers to big leads in the first half — and then the Bulls kicked back.

Early in the fourth quarter, Cavaliers reserve Matthew Dellavedova and Taj Gibson got tangled up on the floor, and Gibson took exception to Dellavedova locking Gibson’s foot with his legs. Gibson kicked out, angrily, starting a scrum that brought all participants on the floor to break it up.

The officials ejected Gibson, and his presence was sorely missed on that final defensive possession, but it helped put the Bulls back in gear after a couple disastrous stretches in the second quarter where the bench again came up lame.

Without Pau Gasol, who missed his second straight game with a strained left hamstring, opportunities opened up for Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich, but none truly had an impact, leading to more droughts.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The Bulls shot just 39.5 percent from the field compared to the Cavs shooting 50 percent, yet made eight more free throws and didn’t turn the ball over much (11 times).

Mike Dunleavy took advantage of having a hobbled Irving guard him after Rose exploited Irving at every chance early in the game, with his triple and 3-point play pulling the Bulls to within six with 4:55 left.

“There’s a bunch of weird mismatches going on in this series because LeBron’s playing the four,” Dunleavy said. “When you get a point guard on you, you want to take a little advantage of it.”

The Bulls made Cleveland sweat after it appeared the Cavs would run away with it, but it’s the Bulls now 48 minutes away from another offseason full of “what ifs” and “what could’ve beens” if they don’t turn things around Thursday.

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short


Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

Lauri Markkanen doesn't often feel short.

The Bulls forward is 7-feet tall, which even in the land of NBA giants makes him one of the tallest players on the court at all times. So when Markkanen stands next to Yao Ming, it changes perspective quite a bit.

Markkanen posted a photo with him and the 7-foot-6 Chinese Hall of Famer. Markkanen looks like a child.

Makes you wonder if Markkanen pulled some "What's the weather like up there?" jokes just because he otherwise never can.


Could Derrick Walton Jr. become the solution at backup PG?


Could Derrick Walton Jr. become the solution at backup PG?

Former Miami Heat two-way player Derrick Walton Jr. is reported to be nearing a deal with the Bulls. In an interview with The Athletic, it was stated: "Walton, 23, says he knows where he’ll play next season. An agreement is in place, but his agent, Mark Bartelstein, is requiring him to sit on the news until next week. All Walton can put out publicly is this: 'Long story short, I’m good. I’m going to a great situation. All I can say.' "

And while it is not yet known if the potential contract will be a two-way deal or not, Walton would provide an intriguing lottery ticket for the Bulls. 

The team mostly ignored looking for a backup point guard on the market. There is obviously a belief in the organization that Cameron Payne will have some internal growth, making him the best option. And the trade of Jerian Grant for essentially nothing, shows even more that Payne is there guy. Retaining Ryan Arcidiacono is a nice move considering the hustle that he showed last season at both the G League and NBA level, but it still leaves the Bulls thin in terms of established backup PGs behind Kris Dunn. And that is where Walton comes into play. 

Walton was a four-year player at the University of Michigan, where he played in some big-time games and showed immense leadership potential. But in terms of strictly on the court skills, there is one thing that he does extremely well: space the floor. 

In his four years at Michigan, Walton took a total of 581 3-point attempts, and knocked them down at a 40.1 percent rate. His elite shooting is enough to make him a legitimate rotation player for Fred Hoiberg. And while Payne still may develop into a better player, his outside shooting is his calling card despite never being elite at that skill at the NBA level. And in fact, when you compare he and Walton’s stats from college, the G League and the NBA, it becomes apparent who is the better shooter right now.

3-point percentage at NCAA level: Payne- 35.9 percent, Walton- 40.1 percent
3-point percentage at G League level: Payne- 33.8 percent, Walton- 37.7 percent
3-point percentage at NBA level: Payne- 34 percent, Walton- 41.2 percent

Now obviously, there is a “small sample size alert” for the NBA level, as Walton has only taken 17 3-pointers at the NBA level in his limited time with the Miami Heat. But these numbers show that even dating back to their freshman years of college, Walton has been the more efficient shooter from 3-point range.

Cameron Payne has the edge when it comes to playmaking, and this is based off of the fact that Payne has maintained an assist rate above 30 percent through all of his G League stints, while also having a low turnover rate (9.9 percent). Walton didn’t come close to Payne in terms of G League assist rate, and his 17.9 percent turnover rate at the G League level shows that his decision-making has yet to catch up to his shooting. 

Ultimately, Walton is going to be most effective as an off-ball guard who can make quick decisions, and knockdown the 3-point shot at a high level. Though if Summer League was any indication, his passing out of the pick-and-roll is getting better. And while Payne certainly is a good shooter, his game is much more predicated on having the ball in his hands, and playing in the pick-and-roll. With so many players on the Bulls who can create their own shot, Walton could end up being the cleanest fit with this constantly evolving Bulls roster.