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Bulls suffer crushing Game 3 loss; Noah injured

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Bulls suffer crushing Game 3 loss; Noah injured

PHILADELPHIABizarre, ugly and painful are just some of the words that could be used to sum up the Bulls 79-74 Game 3 loss to the 76ers in their first-round playoff series Friday night.

As opposed to Game 2s third-quarter collapse, the Bulls downfall took place in the fourth period this time aroundthe Sixers used a 19-4 run to take control of the defensive struggleand coupled with center Joakim Noahs left-ankle injury, a season full of promise, now looks to be on the brink of ending, as the top overall seed in the playoffs now faces a 2-1 series deficit with Game 4 in a hostile environment looming, the teams superstar not in uniform and now, the heart and soul of the squad also ailing.

In an emotionally charged playoff environment, the Bulls kept pace early, led by the much-maligned Carlos Boozer, who mixed his usual feathery mid-range touch with aggressiveness and brute strength on the interior.

The Sixers, buoyed by their raucous home crowd, got varied contributions, but while the duo center Spencer Hawes and point guard Jrue Holiday were the offensive headliners at the outset, their determined overall approach set the tone.

A much more defensive battle than the series first two games ensued, as each possession was a grindBulls head coach Tom Thibodeau employed full-court pressure after turnovers and fouls in the backcourt on Philadelphia side out-of-bounds passes, utilizing center Joakim Noahs agilitythroughout the opening period, though the Sixers got a boost from instant-offense sixth man Lou Williams off the bench.

At the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls led, 20-19, following John Lucas IIIs buzzer-beater.

Thibodeau rode his starters through the outset of the second quarteronly Lucas, who replaced starting point guard C.J. Watson toward the end of the previous frameand it worked, as Noah joined Boozer in being an interior force by playing with his trademark energy, Rip Hamilton got to the free-throw line and Luol Deng, while he wasnt an effective scorer, played his typically high level of defense and crashed the boards proficiently.

The fact that Thibodeau altered his rotation, evidenced by backup swingman Ronnie Brewer not seeing any minutes and rookie Jimmy Butler receiving playing time, exemplified the significance of the pivotal matchup.

While Lucas scoring was a boon for the visitors, Chicagos offense also struggled with turnovers and though second-year Sixers wing Evan Turner, a Chicago native, was effective against a set defense, the Bulls managed to keep their hosts out of transition and dominated the glass.

Still, they couldnt obtain much breathing room and what was a slim cushion evaporated as the period waned on, due to one of their periodic offensive droughtsthey went approximately six minutes without making a field goaland at the intermission, Philadelphia held a 40-39 advantage.

After the break, the Bulls took advantage of a sloppy Sixers beginning to the second half and drew first blood, going on a 6-0 run to regain the lead.

Then, however, disaster struck, as Noah, while pushing the ball in transition, severely turned his left ankle after stepping on Philadelphia All-Star swingman Andre Iguodalas foot with 7:57 left in the period.

Noah immediately went to the ground in pain, clutching at his ankle and while he hobbled off under his own power and returned to shoot the ensuing free throws after a timeout, he was clearly laboring and came out of the game with 6:46 to go.

However, thanks to Boozers aggressive offensebefore he, along with a struggling Deng, picked up a fourth foul apiece; Boozers replacement, Taj Gibson, threw his own scare into Chicago after going down clutching his knee, but he eventually got up and joined his teammates on the other end of the floor, apparently suffering no significant consequencesand Philadelphias inept shooting, the Bulls lead actually ballooned, giving them a 60-51 edge heading into the final stanza.

Hamilton, playing his first fourth-quarter minutes of the series in the city closest to his hometown, continued his fine all-around play and carried the Bulls offense as both a scorer and playmaker, while Gibson recovered enough to dominate the offensive boards, leading to multiple second-chance opportunities for the visitors.

Remarkably, Noah also made a brief return to the game and even knocked down his patented Tornado jumper, but limping even more than before his trip to the locker room, he soon exited the contest for good after a two-minute, six-second comeback.

With their rowdy fans behind them, the Sixers sped up the tempo in a spirited comeback attempt, which was mostly held off by Boozer, who played with the force fans have desired since his arrival in Chicago, but Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes, after struggling throughout much of the game, came alive to bring the hosts back as part of 19-4 run, giving the home team a 72-71 lead with 2:11 to play.

A badly-missed Boozer jumper with just over a minute left, followed by a Holiday offensive rebound on the subsequent possessionhe was fouled on the play and split a pair of foul shots with 49 seconds left, giving Philadelphia a four-point leadappeared to seal the deal.

But the Bulls revived the never-say-die spirit that carried them all season long and Lucas nailed a three-pointer on the next trip to make it a one-point game, after which Turner made a pair of free throws to make it 77-74 with 20.1 seconds on the clock.

After a timeout, Deng air-balled a game-tying three-point attempt with 16.9 seconds remaining and Holiday drained two shots from the charity stripe to provide the final score.

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

It's never easy being the third wheel. Ask Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, or more currently Klay Thompson. When Cam Reddish signed his Letter of Intent to play for Coach K at Duke, he was joined by a class that included RJ. Barrett and Cam Reddish. He and Barrett were expected to take on the scoring load and lead a freshman-driven Blue Devils team.

But two months after Reddish, Barrett and Jones signed on officially, Zion Williamson committed to Duke and turned everything on its head. On paper, it made the Blue Devils the No. 1 team in the country. It gave them a fourth five-star prospect and arguably the best player in the country. We all know what happened with Williamson; he turned in one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history and will be selected first overall by the Pelicans in a month. Barrett was excellent, too. The oft-criticized wing was an All-American, led the Blue Devils in scoring and cemented his status as a top-3 pick.

Reddish's freshman campaign couldn't have gone more differently. He was inconsistent throughout, finishing his lone season in Durham averaging 13.5 points on 35.6% shooting and just 33.3% from beyond the arc. Even his 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists were a far cry from what was expected of a recruit many had ranked ahead of Williamson when the season began. He showed flashes, to be sure, like his 22-point effort against Kentucky, his game-winner at Florida State and his 27-point outing against North Carolina in the infamous Zion-shoe-blowout game. But those flashes weren't enough to save a subpar season that saw his draft stock tumble throughout the fall and winter.

Then again, Reddish was the third option behind two of the most profilic scorers in the country. Barrett had a 32.2% usage rate - 25th highest in the country - and Williamson was a focal point every night he stepped on the floor. In a sense that should have created more open looks for Reddish as defenses keyed in on those two, but in reality it limited his opportunities and made it difficult for him to project at how he would be used on game-by-game basis.

Reddit wasn't making any excuses for his poor season when he spoke to the media on Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine. But he did say he's looking forward to opportunities in the pre-draft process to show off his entire arsenal that made him a top-5 prospect and a potential top NBA pick coming out of high school.

"I feel like I can do everything. I feel like I was more of a shooter this year (at Duke). I don’t really want to think of myself as a shooter," he said. "So I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things."

Two key statistics back up Reddish's claim. First, he was excellent on off-the-dribble jump shots, averaging 0.903 points per possession on 62 attempts. That ranked in the 71st percentile nationally. He also dominated in the small sample size of pick-and-roll actions he induced, averaging 1.114 points per possession (91st percentile nationally). It lends credibility to the notion that Reddish is capable with the ball in his hands. Reddish's usage rate was 15th in the ACC, so it's not as though he never touched the ball. But between the Williamson/Barrett combination and the lead point guard in Jones, he was rarely the main (or second) option.

Playing off the ball was certainly new to Reddish, who like so many NBA prospects deal with a new role in not being the go-to scorer once they arrive in the Association. Reddish got a dose of that as a college freshman and struggled to adjust. He was unguarded on 45 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts and yet ranked in just the 27th percentile nationally at 0.847 points per possession. Worse, he was in the 33rd percentile on spot-up jumpers on 193 possessions. The looks were there. He rarely knocked them down. He also shot just 51 percent at the rim, a troubling number, and that statistic includes freebies in transition that Duke thrived on during the season.

On talent and potential alone, Reddish is still a top-10 pick. He told reporters Thursday that he's hearing he'll fall somewhere in the 3 to 10 range, which sounds about right (though it'd be a shock to see him go before Barrett at No. 3). He still has prototypical NBA wing size - he measured 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan - and is an above average ball handler. But there's no denying his good traits combined with his poor showing at Duke make him a swing-for-the-fences, boom-or-bust pick.

For the Bulls, it might be time to pull the trigger on that kind of player. Both Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. fell into their laps at No. 7 the previous two seasons - that's not to say they shouldn't be applauded for the picks, just that they were expected. But in this year's draft class, players in the 4-14 range all fall into a similar tier. In the Lottery, there will be safe routes to take (De'Andre Hunter, Rui Hachimura), selections for need (Darius Garland, Coby White) and there will be high-risk, high-reward options (Reddish, Sekou Doumbouya, Jarrett Culver).

But the Bulls could do worse than coming out of this year's draft with a player who 7 shorts months ago was a potential pick to go No. 1. He'd have lower expectations playing on a second unit and could spread his wings a little behind Zach LaVine and Otto Porter. Having that freedom on a second unit could be what unlocks that untapped potential that was missing at Duke a year ago.

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

With the majority of mock drafts coming out after Tuesday’s lottery having the Bulls selecting North Carolina point guard Coby White with the seventh overall pick in the June 20 NBA Draft, it had me thinking about whether this might be the year to take a chance on a high risk/high reward pick.

Yes, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson has made it clear he plans to bring in a point guard to challenge incumbent starter Kris Dunn, but with so many options in free agency, are the Bulls still inclined to go in that direction with their first round pick?

Before the lottery, the odds of the Bulls being in position to select either Ja Morant or Darius Garland looked pretty favorable if they stayed in the top-5. But after dropping all the way to No. 7, it’s almost a certainty that Morant and Garland will be gone, leaving White as the highest rated point guard available. White showed tremendous speed and scoring potential in his one season at North Carolina, but he has a lot to learn about directing an offense at the NBA level and will need to get stronger.

If Dunn returns for the final season of his rookie contract, there’s a good chance he moves into a backup role behind a veteran free agent, so maybe this isn’t the year to draft a developmental point guard.

So then, what do the Bulls do at No. 7?

Maybe it’s time to take a flier on a high upside athlete, something they really haven’t done since the infamous LaMarcus Aldridge-Tyrus Thomas draft night deal in 2006. This year’s draft contains a number of players who didn’t live up to expectations in their one collegiate season, but rank high on the athletic testing charts.

I had a chance to talk with a number of players at the draft combine in Chicago, and one who impressed me is USC guard Kevin Porter Jr. Scouts love the athleticism of the 6-foot-4 Porter Jr., but he underperformed in his one collegiate season, averaging just 9.5 points on 47 percent shooting from the field in a mostly reserve role.

Porter Jr. missed seven games because of a thigh injury and also had to serve a team suspension for “personal conduct issues.” But he’s not lacking in confidence, telling me he was a top-5 prospect at the start of the season and will be able to work his way up draft boards after teams get a chance to interview him and put him through individual workouts. Porter Jr. also mentioned comparisons to last year’s NBA MVP James Harden, mostly because they’re both 6-foot-4, played at PAC 12 universities and are left-handed.

No one is predicting Porter Jr. will ever come close to the unique scoring talent Harden displays on a nightly basis, but he definitely looks the part of an NBA player with a strong upper body and impressive leaping ability. Don’t be surprised if he winds up being a top-10 pick on draft night.

Other players projected for the late lottery include Indiana shooting guard Romeo Langford, Kentucky SG/SF Keldon Johnson, North Carolina small forward Nassir Little, French forward Sekou Doumbouya and Oregon 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol.

Much like Porter Jr., Little was considered a top-5 pick at the start of the college season, but never earned Roy Williams’ complete confidence at North Carolina, and struggled to find consistent minutes and shot attempts. He shot the ball well at the combine and projects as an elite defender at the NBA level. The Bulls really aren’t in the market for another small forward with Otto Porter Jr. and 2018 first round pick Chandler Hutchison already on the roster, but the wing positions offer the most talent in this draft.

Bol is a fascinating prospect with many scouts saying he’s one of the best pure shooters in this draft as a 7-footer. Problem is Bol suffered a foot fracture early in his freshman season at Oregon, the same type of injury that cost Joel Embiid his first two NBA seasons. Any team that drafts Bol will have to understand the risk of further injury, and the likelihood he won’t be able to contribute much in the 2019-2020 season.

If the Bulls stay at No. 7, White is the most logical pick, but they could go with a player that drops unexpectedly, like Duke forward Cam Reddish or Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver. The Bulls have always been aggressive in scheduling personal workouts and interviews with all the prospects in their draft range, and this year that process will take on more importance than ever.

Remember, Donovan Mitchell was one of the most impressive athletes at the combine two years ago, but stayed on the board until the Utah Jazz worked a trade with Denver to get him at No. 13. Now Mitchell is one of the best young guards in the NBA. Kyle Kuzma also moved into the first round in 2017 with a strong combine showing and is thriving as a productive two-way player with the Lakers.

It’s up to Paxson and his staff to find which player has the most long term upside and maybe come up with their own version of Mitchell or Kuzma next month.

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