Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers


Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers

The atmosphere was emotional, nervous and unsure inside the United Center, as the Bulls were staring down playoff elimination of a different kind from a familiar and haunting face in LeBron James.

James has put the Bulls out of their misery more times than Bulls fans would care to remember and with the way the Bulls have played recently, James sending them throbbing into the offseason was not out of the realm of possibility.

But the Bulls decided to flip the script for the first time in awhile, although it seems to only delay the inevitable and enrage the desperate fan base in the meantime as they took the third of four meetings from the Cleveland Cavaliers with a rousing second half comeback, winning 105-102 Saturday night.

James did his part, hitting four triples on the way to 33 points, but was on the bench during the decisive 15-0 run in the fourth quarter that saw the Bulls take a 13-point lead.

When he returned, he orchestrated a comeback that made things more than scary for the Bulls, as old demons reappeared from this season. A scare turned into near-nightmare when J.R. Smith missed the second of two free throws, grabbed his own rebound and the ball wound up on the hands of one Matthew Dellavedova.

[MORE: Fred Hoiberg plays 'Dumb and Dumber' clip for Bulls, laments early-season losses]

And with the chance to again put the Bulls out, he shortarmed a triple, missing the entire rim. With one final chance, Smith’s desperation triple came up short to secure the win.

“I had a good look…” Smith said with a wistful smile.

It moves the Bulls to 7-1 against the top two teams in the East, and likely a summer of wondering “what if’s” should the Indiana Pacers win one more game to secure a postseason berth, as they'll take on the 21-58 Brooklyn Nets Sunday night.

Their season is in the hands of a team who inexplicably beat the Bulls at home earlier this season, and has lost seven in a row.

“If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the year we would be 7-1 against the top two seeds and on the outside looking in, I would’ve told you (that) you were crazy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Crazy night, crazy circumstances, crazy feelings as Hoiberg played riverboat gambler with two players who weren’t even an afterthought on opening night, as Cristiano Felicio was at the end of the bench and Justin Holiday was toiling away in Atlanta as a newly-signed free agent.

But here they were, center stage as they helped lead the charge to start the fourth with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol all on the bench, with Hoiberg riding Felicio over Gasol for the entire fourth quarter.

“We were going to go with that lineup in the beginning to give Derrick a couple more minutes of rest,” Hoiberg said. “We were very confident in our bench tonight.”

He had reason to be.

Felicio had thunderous dunks, solid screens and active feet on defense, making all seven of his field goal attempts on the way to 16 points and five rebounds. The other catalyst was someone nobody even gave a thought to even upon his arrival at the trade deadline in Holiday, who only had one field goal but could qualify as unsung hero with seven points, four assists and two steals in 22 minutes.

Holiday played solid defense on Cavaliers’ wizardly point guard Kyrie Irving, forcing multiple turnovers when Irving was tasked with running the Cavaliers as James took his usual rest.

Instead, Holiday and Felicio unexpectedly ran the Cavaliers out of the building, helping build a 97-84 lead with 5:16 left.

“His ability to stay in front of Kyrie and force a couple turnovers were huge,” Hoiberg said. “We talked about it at halftime, if we can rebound the ball, we can win the game.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

They didn’t play perfect, as Hoiberg’s stated goal of limiting the Cavaliers to five 3-pointers fell on deaf ears as the visitors hit 19 of 40, with more 3-pointers than twos.

Smith hit seven on the night as the Bulls failed to keep contain on helpside defense and yielded 18 offensive rebounds, two statistics that traditionally spell doom for the Bulls.

Kevin Love got the Cavaliers going, especially with their emphasis on him being a primary option early, scoring 20 points with 13 rebounds, in addition to James hitting every jumper to start.

But they limited Irving to five of 17 shooting and had balanced scoring on their end, with Butler leading with 21 points, 15 coming in the second half as momentum-stoppers when the Cavaliers threatened to end the Bulls’ season, taking a 70-59 lead with 7:13 left in the third.

“It shows what we’re capable of when we play the game the right way,” Butler said.

Now the Bulls must be perfect and have to rely on real lottery teams to help them sneak into the postseason.

If nothing else, they didn’t give James the satisfaction of putting them out once more, avoiding elimination but in the words of Hoiberg, “hoping for a miracle”.

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

The Bulls backup point guard situation will be in dire straits all season, with no established veteran behind Kris Dunn. And although the front office has seemingly committed to Cameron Payne as the backup PG (for at least this season), Ryan Arcidiacono showed enough in the season opener to justify giving him meaningful plying time in the rotation. 

Here are the stat lines of Arcidiacono and Cameron Payne from the season opener in Philadelphia:

Arcidiacono: 8 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line

Payne:           0 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 0-for-1 from the 3-point line

With so many capable ball handlers and score-first players on the Bulls, point and assist totals aren’t as important as the rebounds and 3-point attempts. To provide the necessary space needed for driving lanes, there has to be openings in the defense caused by defenders sticking close to player they believe are a threat to shoot.

And that is where the problem lies with Payne.

Ryan Arcidiacono—while by no means a dominant scorer—showed a willingness to attack off of the pick-and-roll, even showing off an impressive ball-fake:

Payne, despite coming into the league with the reputation of a scorer, has yet to be aggressive enough to make teams think twice about leaving him wide-open on the perimeter. And he is not one to attack the basket with purpose, averaging less than half a free throw per game for his career. Payne's general lack of aggressiveness when on the floor is often times made worse by his occasional poor post entry passes that seem predetermined:

Even if the above play was designed to get the ball to LaVine in the mid-post, Payne chooses a terrible time to make the pass. When he starts the motion to give the ball to LaVine, Ben Simmons is positioned in front of LaVine to force a tougher pass, as rookie Landry Shamet gambles over the backside to get the steal.

Had Payne chose to swing the ball around the perimeter, or give it to Bobby Ports and then get it back, he could have created an opening for the LaVine pass.

Obviously, the Bulls 19-point loss can’t be blamed on solely on Payne, the terrible defense was a group effort, as was the sometimes questionable shot selection. But with the defense already appearing to be perhaps one of the league's worst units, Fred Hoiberg would be wise to put Arcidiacono in more.

Hoiberg is in a crucial year where he needs to show that he can be the head coach of this team when they finally become competitive.

And for Hoiberg to show that type of growth as a coach, he needs to set the tone that minutes are earned not given, something he has already started with his moving of Jabari Parker to the bench. Payne only received 22 minutes, compared to 28 minutes for Arcidiacono, and it is tough to see that changing if things continue on like they did on Thursday night.