Bulls

Cristiano Felicio plays unlikely hero, keeps Bulls' slim playoff hopes alive

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Cristiano Felicio plays unlikely hero, keeps Bulls' slim playoff hopes alive

The Bulls had offseason visions of an early spring rematch against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with playoff implications on the line.

And at the time, the thought of Brazilian rookie Cristiano Felicio making a significant impact in such a game would have been just as unlikely as the Bulls’ playoff chances being on life support in the final week of the regular season.

But that’s the situation the Bulls face, still needing what Fred Hoiberg described as a “miracle” in the season’s final four days to make the postseason. But for at least one more night they staved off elimination, and the little known Brazilian suddenly making a name for himself was a major reason why.

Felicio scored a career-high 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting, blocked two shots and played the final 15 minutes as the Bulls topped the Cavaliers, 105-102, which also kept Cleveland from securing the top seed in the East.

“You could argue he was the player of the game,” Hoiberg said of his rookie center.

Felicio was part of a Bulls bench unit that outscored the Cavs’ reserves, 44-11, on a night when each of the Bulls’ starters finished with a negative rating – each of the Cavs’ starters subsequently finished with a positive rating.

With Taj Gibson sidelined a sixth consecutive game, Felicio again found himself thrust into the rotation behind Pau Gasol. He ran the pick-and-roll offense without flaw in the first half, finishing all three of his shots at the basket, including a thunderous dunk of an alley-oop from Aaron Brooks.

[MORE: Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs]

And while he had logged double-digit minutes in each of the last six games, on Saturday night Hoiberg stayed with the 23-year-old in crunch time. He played all but the final two seconds of the fourth quarter. He produced during the Bulls’ decisive 13-2 run early in the final period, finishing on a dunk, blocking a Kyrie Irving layup and adding two more points on a layup that helped give the Bulls a 97-84 lead midway through the period.

He was strong in pick-and-roll defense against the Cavs’ small ball lineup, and when Cleveland cut the deficit to six with a 12-5 run, Felicio responded with an up-and-under layup off a feed from Jimmy Butler, who finished with 21 points and six assists.

Felicio got too aggressive in the final minute attempting to grab an offensive rebound, fouling J.R. Smith and sending him to the line where he cut the deficit to two. But on the whole he was part of a defense that held the Cavs to 33 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“I haven’t been playing games like that for a couple of years now, and of course it’s different to be playing crunch time in the NBA, and it was a great experience for me,” Felicio said. “I made a couple of mistakes there but it was good for me to know what I had to do, and keep improving from that.”

Felicio spent much of the season buried behind the guy who was buried on the Bulls’ frontcourt depth chart, first round pick Bobby Portis. But injuries to Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol have given the 23-year-old center his chance to shine, and he’s made good on his opportunity.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

He made just five appearances in the Bulls’ first 50 games, logging no more than four minutes in each. His first real opportunity and the blossoming of his confidence came just after the All-Star break. With Mirotic still out, he scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds in 14 minutes against the Raptors.

Since then he’s been given additional minutes in the absence of Gibson, and he’s grown each game. In his last seven contests, Felicio has averaged 6.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 14.6 minutes.

“I think if you give anybody confidence, and he’s a very confident player, that they can show they can play,” Butler said. “He’s here to stay. He works incredibly hard and I’m happy for him. I really am.”

Felicio only started playing basketball in Brazil when he was 13 years old. The 6-foot-10 center became too big for soccer – he quit when he was told he’d have to play goalie – and he spent the last three seasons playing for Flamengo in his home country. He also helped Brazil win a pair of FIBA tournaments in 2014.

He joined the Bulls’ Summer League team in 2015, where he averaged 3.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in six games. That was enough for the Bulls to sign him in July, and they decided to keep him on the regular season roster. Felicio said no other teams had shown interest in him, and if the Bulls released him after the preseason he would have gone back to Brazil.

It won’t be enough to bring the Bulls back into playoff contention – one Bulls loss or Pacers win ends the Bulls’ chances – but could hold weight when the team begins to plan its offseason.

Noah will be an unrestricted free agent. Gasol is expected to opt out of his contract, and his future in Chicago is still a question mark. Felicio is under contract for one more season, and while he’s still a raw talent that projects as an asset off the bench next season, the flashes he’s shown in the last two weeks should have him competing for minutes in the fall.

Where Felicio fits in and how his continued improvement may change the direction the Bulls take in the offseason will be determined later. For now, for one night, Felicio played the role of unlikely hero and kept the Bulls’ slim playoff hopes alive.

“I tried to go there and play as hard as I can, and my teammates are always with me and talking with me. Tonight was a good night for me,” he said. “I hit a couple layups that got me going and after that continued to play as hard as I could, and I was able to help the team win the game.”

Jersey from LeBron James' first-ever SI cover sells for over $180K

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USA TODAY

Jersey from LeBron James' first-ever SI cover sells for over $180K

LeBron James is arguably the second-greatest basketball player of all time, with a claim to being the true GOAT depending on who you talk to. But one thing we can all agree on, with James entering his 17th season in the NBA, is that we don't know how much longer we will get to see him grace the NBA hardwood. With the final stages of James' illustrious NBA career in sight, fans have started to buy up all of the LBJ merchandise they can find and as of Sunday night, one of the rarest pieces of James memorabilia is off of the market. 

The St. Vincent-St. Mary's Irish jersey that James wore on his first-ever Sports Illustrated cover went for a whopping $187,500 in a Goldin Auctions event. The SI cover that James wore the jersey on in 2002 featured the title "The Chosen One", detailing how NBA franchises were already lining up for their shot at drafting James despite him just being a high school junior at the time. 

The $187,500 paid for the jersey is (somewhat shockingly) more than the amount paid for Michael Jordan's final Bulls regular season jersey, which sold for $173,240 back in 2015, then the highest price paid for a Jordan collectible ever at any auction

Only time will tell if another piece of James (or Jordan) memorabilia will eclipse the $200k mark but with a decent chunk of James' career still left, one would think that is a strong possibility.

Though Goldin Auctions founder Ken Goldin was off a bit, projecting that the jersey would sell for somewhere in the ballpark of $300k or more, the now-legendary jersey still ended up breaking the record for the highest price paid for a LeBron James jersey. 

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Even with unproven wing depth, Bulls will monitor Otto Porter Jr.'s workload

Even with unproven wing depth, Bulls will monitor Otto Porter Jr.'s workload

As the Bulls played out the string last season, fielding glorified G League lineups, meaningful days still existed.

April 3 was one of them.

Not only did the Bulls scratch out a fun, one-point road victory over the Wizards, executive vice president John Paxson, coach Jim Boylen and general manager Gar Forman met with Otto Porter Jr. and his longtime strength coach from his alma mater of Georgetown.

That meeting mapped out Porter’s offseason plan and began the strong communication that continued Friday when Boylen and Porter met to discuss the organization’s approach for a proper workload for the crucial veteran. Following Sunday’s practice at the Advocate Center, Boylen for the first time publicly disclosed the Bulls’ plan to play Porter in the neighborhood of 30 minutes and approach back-to-back games on a case-by-case basis.

“We will manage him appropriately,” Boylen said. “He will not play over 30 minutes in anything we do to get going here. We’ll manage him on the off days in a real respectful way. Obviously, he’s a big piece. He’s our starting 3, a big wing. And we need him.”

The Bulls have a set of back-to-back games in this first week of the regular season, with their home opener against the defending NBA champion Raptors coming Saturday following a game at the Grizzlies Friday.

“We’ll see how he feels,” Boylen said. “It might be a situation where we manage him the first night in order to play him the second night. Or manage him the first night and the second night he feels maybe a night he doesn’t play. But we have a plan. It’s rough because it’s depending on how he feels.”

Right now, Porter feels good.

“Preseason has been great, making sure my body is healthy, making sure I get my reps in, making sure as a team we’re ready to go,” Porter said following practice. “I’ll hold it down for us until we get Chandler (Hutchison) back. That’s going to be always my job.

“But we got a lot of guards that can play the three too. We got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions. If somebody goes down, the next man always got to step up and replace – not replace but do more – and I feel like everybody is going to do more.”

Hutchison has yet to play with a hamstring injury. Shaq Harrison missed all five preseason games but is available for Wednesday’s opener in Charlotte, N.C.

Boylen said there are many options to keep Porter fresh even with Hutchison injured and Denzel Valentine currently out of the rotation, including Harrison or Tomas Satoransky at backup small forward and three-guard lineups. The Bulls also utilize big lineups with Thad Young at small forward.

“You’ve seen what we’ve done. We’ve had Coby (White), Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono) and (Kris) Dunn out there together. Playing small and fast is good. You can also put ‘Sato’ out there with that group,” Boylen said. “There may be opportunities where we go big depending on the situation of the game. We’ve practiced those lineups and scenarios.”

Porter played a huge role in the Bulls’ brief surge last February after arriving from the Wizards in a trade. He has battled nagging injuries in the past, including knee, shoulder and neck issues. Porter also underwent minor surgery on his left leg that knocked him out of the April 2018 playoffs to address a blood buildup around a contusion.

“Every season, there are ups and downs and teams go through it,” Porter said. “Right now, it’s a matter of depth and we want to start out fresh. You start out fresh, you’re already ahead of the game.”

Porter is encouraged by the Bulls’ offense during the preseason, including an increased emphasis on 3-point attempts.

“Right now, we might not be shooting a high percentage. But in the regular season, that number is definitely going to increase drastically because we’re practicing hard, making our open shots and just getting open looks,” Porter said. “We know what this offense can do for us.”