Bulls

Bulls top Lakers in Kobe Bryant's final game in Chicago

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Bulls top Lakers in Kobe Bryant's final game in Chicago

The Bulls realized early in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers there was nothing ordinary about the game they were attempting to finish off.

A 15-3 run to end the third quarter had pushed the Bulls' lead 16 by the end of the third quarter, and an E'Twaun Moore basket extended the lead to 19, their biggest of the night.

It's about the time that the sellout crowd of 23,143, littered with No. 24 "Bryant" jerseys, began chanting the name of the man all in attendance had come to see.

The chants of "Ko-be! Ko-be!" persisted until late in the period, when the Lakers had roared back to pull within a single possession of the Bulls, and Bryant re-entered to a rousing applause from the United Center crowd.

Bryant scored just two more points after re-entering, and the Bulls were able to stave off the Lakers' comeback bid by scoring 12 of the game's final 17 points in a 126-115 victory over the Lakers. The night honoring and celebrating Bryant's historic 20-year career was as unique a situation as the Bulls had faced this season, but Fred Hoiberg understood its importance within the game.

"Look, he deserves everything he's getting out there," he said after the game. "I'm sure it's happening in every gym that he's playing in. It's very well-deserved for Kobe, everything he's getting out there. He deserves this farewell tour, whatever you want to call it, send-off, that he's got going."

Celebration aside, the Bulls were able to move past the unique circumstances and perform at a level they needed to against an inferior opponent. The 126 points were a regulation season-high, and they topped a season-high by shooting nearly 56 percent from the field and 68 percent from beyond the arc in their second consecutive victory for the first time since Jan. 5 and 7.

E'Twaun Moore matched a career-high with 24 points, Derrick Rose continued his stellar play with 24 points and six assists and six players scored 17 or more points, including Bobby Portis' 17 points and seven rebounds off the bench.

Bryant was the main attraction from the moment he entered the United Center. He spoke with members of the media for 15 minutes prior to the game, fielding questions ranging from his favorite memories playing against Michael Jordan, to nearly signing with the Bulls in 2004 and being traded there in 2007, to his message of patience to Bulls fans enduring the team’s recent struggles.

[MORE: Chicago's goodbye to Kobe Bryant]

Bryant also received a special two-minute video from the Bulls during pregame introductions and was introduced at the end of the video by former teammate Pau Gasol, who spent parts of seven seasons and won two titles with Bryant.

The five-time champion, who has endured his struggles in his final NBA season but played better of late, showed flashes of his old self in his 15th appearance at the United Center. Bryant connected on an early 3-pointer and scored on four jumpers in a five-possession span that tied the game early in the third quarter, his final jumper bringing the sellout United Center crowd of 23,143 to their feet.

But Bryant’s theatrics were short-lived for the 11-46 Lakers.

The Bulls’ sharpshooting peaked in a dominant third quarter in which they shot 62 percent, including 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Moore made all three of his attempts, Doug McDermott continued his hot shooting with another triple and Gasol added one from the top of the key, shooting a glance to Bryant following Bryant’s fourth bucket of the sequence. The Bulls tallied 30 more assists on Sunday, two days after logging 32 in a win over the Raptors.

"I'm encouraged with what we're doing offensively right now. The ball is moving so much better than it was earlier in the season," Hoiberg said. We're making more simple plays."

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

They ended the quarter on a 15-3 run and scored the first three points of the fourth quarter, seemingly putting the game out of reach. The Lakers responded in the final quarter, thanks to stellar performances from youngsters Julius Randle (22 points, 12 rebounds) and D'Angelo Russell (15 points, six assists), while Jordan Clarkson scored 12 of his 20 points in the final stanza. During the Lakers' 18-4 run fans began clamoring for head coach Byron Scott to substitute Bryant, who had played 25 minutes to that point, back into the game. 

Bryant re-entered the game for the final time after Moore’s triple put the Bulls up seven with three minutes remaining. Bryant added two free throws to finish with 22 points on 8-for-20 shooting before jumpers from Gasol and Rose iced the game.

Bryant exited with 45 seconds remaining to one final standing ovation from the crowd. After the final horn sounded he found Gasol and embraced his longtime friend for the final time on an NBA court.

"We shared a few moments now but knowing this one was the last one on an NBA floor, it’s special to share that moment," Gasol said after the game. "To have the bond that we have, the respect and admiration and friendship. So it’s awesome and I love it. I feel honored that I have this type of relationship, where I’ve earned his respect throughout the years and that we won a couple championships together, which is pretty amazing."

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”