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Hoiberg calling for Bulls to ride emotion for final stretch

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Hoiberg calling for Bulls to ride emotion for final stretch

The United Center crowd was on its feet minutes before Saturday night’s game against the Houston Rockets, as the feeling in the building was part anxious excitement and the other, more dominant emotion was plain-old anxiety.

It had the feel of a Game 3 in the playoffs, where a team is coming back down 0-2 and knowing a loss in a seven-game series would essentially end their season.

In other words, the result was predictable as the Bulls rode the wave of emotion, and despite their own 26 turnovers, held on to beat the Rockets on national TV.

“Every game is a playoff game,” Derrick Rose said afterward, having limped into the locker room, playing through taking a hard fall on his tailbone courtesy of a charge from James Harden.

The Bulls surged with new life, buoyed by the returns of Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic, as Saturday was as close to full strength as they’ve been all season — and as they’ll be for the remainder of it.

And make no mistake, how long the season has in it is entirely up to the players and Fred Hoiberg, as through the wave of disappointment this season has brought, there is still enough opportunity to salvage something of this.

Rose’s blow-by’s to the basket, still capable of being one of the few lead guards to go end-to-end in a moment’s notice, was evidenced by his forays and reverse layups, along with his lightning-quick passes to Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol for dunks and jumpers.

Gasol, playing as well as a 35-year old can at this stage, putting up numbers that don’t seem like it during the game, but his pinpoint passes and stand-still jumpers bring a dimension that’s necessary offensively when things do slow down.

Butler still has that extra lift in his jumper, which he displayed in going to get an alley-oop from a bad Gasol pass in the first quarter and crowding James Harden to make his life miserable despite Harden scoring 36 in a one-man show.

“It was great tonight, his energy was awesome,” said Dunleavy of Butler’s return. “He provided a huge boost for us, especially on the defensive end and dealing with Harden. We look forward to keeping him healthy and keeping him out there.”

At Sunday’s light practice, where Hoiberg was still impressed with the urgency his team displayed, he took the unexpected stance of saying this team will have to rely on emotion for the last 21 games — a dangerous proposition considering the stage of the season.

He shrugged off the notion of emotion wearing off at a certain point, once the return of Butler and Mirotic wears off.

“Well, it can't. We can't afford that,” Hoiberg said. “We're at a point in our season right now where every game has to be played with unbelievable urgency and unbelievable effort. That's got to be the constant for this team. Whether we're making shots or not, you've got to give effort, you've got to defend, you've got to give yourself an opportunity, and I thought we did that last night.”

Ironic the criticism of Tom Thibodeau was his so-called lack of ability in seeing the big picture, and belief he would sell his soul — and yours too — to win one meaningless basketball game in January.

Or March.

Now the Bulls have seemingly co-opted that mentality, and Hoiberg expects to see that type of emotion and desperation every night for as long as it takes.

“That was our focus last night, was going into that game with a playoff mentality,” Hoiberg said. “We felt that going home after the Florida trip, it was important to get back on track. Getting our guys back was a big part of that, and I thought they went out and competed from the beginning.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Certainly the strong start, where the Bulls got after it in the first quarter, gave room for hope as they arose from their slumber that seemed to last for the better part of two months.

“We went out and jumped out to a good lead early in that game and set the tone and got the pace where we wanted it,” Hoiberg said. “We got an 18-point lead early in the fourth and hung on, but the right mentality coming out of the gate. We defended well for the most part.”

Defending is about executing, energy and yes, emotion, but it requires more of the first attribute than the latter. For the last several weeks the Bulls were sleepwalking on both ends of the floor, relying on their continuity and offensive know-how rather than choking the life from their opponent.

And when it came to crunch time — if it came to that — they didn’t have enough muscle memory or toughness to prevent opposing teams from imposing their will and making the Bulls fold.

It’s contributed to the Bulls’ losing nine fourth-quarter leads this season, third to only the talentless Philadelphia 76ers and confounding, confusing Oklahoma City Thunder, coached by fresh-from-college coach Billy Donovan, who lead with 10 each.

“It’s defense,” Rose said. “When we’re up, and we think the game is over with, teams are playing hard and that’s when they go to just shooting threes.”

That’s a sign of desperation and simply where the game is going, as the Bulls are struggling to find their way in this new NBA with their own set of unique circumstances.

On paper, they should beat out the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and even leapfrog the likes of the Charlotte Hornets to obtain something other than a death-knell 1-8 matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But paper hasn’t helped the Bulls be anything aside from mediocre, and the usual void-of-emotion Hoiberg is relying on the only thing he has left perhaps in this underachieving season: riding the emotional wave.

At some point, though, it does wear off and you show what you’re made of.

Game “3” was a success, but Game “4” is the litmus test.

Starting Monday at the United Center.

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

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USA TODAY

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

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USA TODAY

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."