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”.

Bulls will sign player to 2-way contract, but NBA roster is set for now

USA Today

Bulls will sign player to 2-way contract, but NBA roster is set for now

The Bulls waived Milton Doyle, Justin Simon and Simisola Shittu Saturday, which is minor news since they were mostly camp bodies competing for possibly a two-way contract.

The bigger development is that the Bulls’ roster is basically set, pending the signing of one player to the second two-way contract still available. No Iman Shumpert. No Alfonzo McKinnie. And that’s just naming two hometown products recently linked to the Bulls via the rumor mill.

The Bulls still want to see what they have in Chandler Hutchison, who did some individual shooting Saturday but missed all training camp with a hamstring injury. Denzel Valentine, currently out of the rotation, is staying ready.

And Shaq Harrison, who missed all five preseason games with his own hamstring injury but now is fully practicing, remains a Jim Boylen favorite.

And that’s what the roster staying set for now is about as much as anything. The buy-in Boylen has received from players dating to voluntary September workouts and bonds that have formed could be disrupted by the waiving of someone like Harrison, whose contract isn’t fully guaranteed but his commitment is.

While the Bulls recognize proven wing depth is a question mark, they value Harrison’s toughness and defensive ability. If Hutchison or Harrison or Valentine---if he gets an opportunity---don’t produce, perhaps a move could be made at a later date.

But expect only the signing of a second player to a two-way contract to join Adam Mokoka for now.

“We’ve been talking about that,” Boylen said. “We’re working on that. We’ve got our list and have reached out to some people. We’re actively in process.”

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Lauri Markkanen is focused on team, not individual, goals for Bulls

Lauri Markkanen is focused on team, not individual, goals for Bulls

You can’t put Lauri Markkanen in a box.

Just as you can’t pigeonhole one of the faces of the Bulls’ franchise offensively, you won’t get him to bite on any statistical goals for himself. As the outside world clamors for him and Zach LaVine to represent the Bulls at All-Star weekend in Chicago, Markkanen is focused on team goals.

“We haven’t made it to the playoffs and haven’t won many games since we’ve been here,” Markkanen said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago following Saturday’s practice, alluding to himself, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. “That really bothers us. So we want to win first.”

In fact, as Markkanen fielded questions about a preseason that featured him playing more as a spot-up shooter than the dynamic, double-double machine that defined his February 2019, he shifted the focus to defense and rebounding.

Ho and hum, indeed.

“You’re trying to get me to say 22 (points) and 12 (rebounds) and 3 assists,” Markkanen said, smiling. “I don’t have those kinds of goals. I want to get our wins from 22 to whatever. And I want to get our home wins from nine to whatever. I’m not putting a number on those either. But I think guys are doing a good job of making unselfish plays and making the extra pass. We’re coming together as a team.”

In fact, Markkanen said, at least for now, his only individual goals are to “stay healthy and be consistent.” He reiterated his stance from media day that his goal is to play all 82 games after averaging 60 games his first two seasons.

“I wanted to focus on defense more this preseason and I was a little disappointed in myself in that regard early in preseason. But I watched a lot of film and I think I had my learning moments and I think I got better as preseason moved on,” Markkanen said. “I’ve talked to Coach. We both expect rebounding from me. I think we’re going to be really good offensively. It’s at a high level now, and we’re deeper. If we rebound and can limit their possessions, we have a chance to be really good.”

Don’t mistake Markkanen’s aversion to setting statistical goals for submissiveness. Early in the interview, he called his preseason “maybe not as great as I wanted to play” and acknowledged he needs to increase his free-throw attempts by getting to the rim more.

Of Markkanen’s 42 shots, 24 came from beyond the arc and he attempted just seven free throws in close to 91 preseason minutes. That average of 1.8 free-throw attempts in his four preseason games pales in comparison to the 3.8 he averaged last season.

“I haven’t got to the rim as much. I’m conscious of that. Those are easy points for us,” Markkanen said. “(Driving) is still available to me. But defenses are loading up on me more and trying not to let me get downhill. And we’re not in the post as much (offensively) as we used to be. We’re shooting a lot of 3s.”

Markkanen smiled again as he said this, so it’s clear he likes the Bulls’ approach. He also remains confident his varied offensive game will be on display at some point.

“I don’t always talk to him about his offense to be honest with you,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I talk to him about defending and rebounding and handling the ball. I’ve shown him some of his decisions in transition where he’s handled the ball.

“I want him to compete at the defensive end, rebound, handle the ball and everything else to me takes care of itself. I know he’s going to make shots. Historically, he’s been better when the lights come on.”

Those lights get flipped on for real Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C. You can’t put Markkanen in a box. But he can put pressure on himself to help the Bulls make the playoffs.

“I have really high expectations of myself,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going. I want to win."