James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

As the Houston Rockets were putting the finishing touches on a rout of the Bulls, James Harden took a baseball pass from Patrick Beverley and had a clear path to the basket. Instead, the MVP frontrunner took one dribble and flipped the ball to a streaking Clint Capela, who flushed it home.

It was a situation Harden found himself in much of Friday night. The man who has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league was tasked with plenty of decision making. And as he's done the entire year - in his first season playing point guard - Harden made all the right calls as the Rockets picked up a 115-94 road victory.

Harden didn't light up the box score against a Bulls defense limited to Jimmy Butler and Jimmy Butler only as potential stoppers. He wasn't able to match the 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists he posted in Houston's victory over the Bulls last month. And he was more methodical than flashy, carving his way through the Bulls defense for 19 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists, his 33rd double-double.

But after an ugly start in which he committed five turnovers in his first 13 minutes - and watched the undermanned Bulls take a surprising 13-point lead - Harden was as solid as he could have been. Though just about every Rocket contributed to it, Harden's pacing of the Houston offense allowed for seamless transition buckets, 3-pointers and open layups off pick-and-roll sets. The end result was an unimaginable 72-28 run spanning the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter.

In that span Harden 15 points, six rebounds, eight assists and was a +30. He also committed just one turnover in the final 20 minutes of action, and his 13 assists created 32 points for the Rockets.

"James and I have pretty good chemistry. I know when he wants me to come set a screen or when he’s going to isolate or go to the basket on his own," said Ryan Anderson, who led the Rockets with 21 points and six 3-pointers. "We’re pretty much ready and prepared to spread the court around him and give him space to work and distribute. And for us we just want to make the best decisions."

Harden's ability to know when the flow of the game calls for him and his 29.1 points per contest to take over, or when his league-leading 11.2 assists need to help others involved, was on full display.

Late in the second quarter, after Dwyane Wade converted a three-point play to give the Bulls a one-point lead, Harden buried a pair of triples on successive possesions, with the latter becoming a four-point play after he baited Michael Carter-Williams into a foul.

Harden stayed aggressive in the third quarter, but with the Bulls keying in on him he became D'Antoni's distributor. He handed out five assists in various manners. First he found Capela on a pick-and-roll for an alley-oop dunk. Twice Anderson popped out off screens and buried triples. Later Harden drove and kicked to a wide-open Trevor Ariza (19 points), and he finished the quarter with a dart to Nene at the foul line for a 17-foot jumper.

"That’s probably his thing that we talk more about is him staying right in the middle in the sense of how much you score and how much you help the team," D'Antoni said. "You can’t do both, and it’s a fine line of some days it’s too much team and some days it’s too much 1-on-1. So he’s trying to stay right on that road in the middle where that’s how we win."

Friday he was clearly a distributor, as a sub-par Bulls defense struggled to keep up. Harden's 19 points were the second fewest he had scored in a month, and he only made five trips to the free-throw line, far less than the 11.0 attempts he averages per game. He picked and choosed his spots to score, and there weren't too many high-pressure situations for him to make decisions on in the blowout.

But it was yet another opportunity for him to build his skills and grow as a point guard. D'Antoni opted to make Harden the primary ball handler and point guard when he took over this summer. He stressed to Harden the importance of not worrying about turnovers - Harden leads the league with 6.8 turnovers per game - because of how often the Rockets wanted the ball in his hands.

Harden's made good on that. His usage rate is second only to Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in both assists per game and passes per game, showing that while he's finding open shooters he's also keeping the offense moving.

"You don’t really know how difficult it is to be the point guard until you’re really in it," he said. "I don’t really worry about the turnovers. I just go out there and try to make the right play and get everyone involved and play my game."

It's working for the Rockets, who are comfortably sitting in the No. 3 spot in the West. Already touting wins over the two teams ahead of them in the standings in Golden State and San Antonio, there's a belief their NBA-record 3-point shooting could help propel them to the Finals for the first time in two decades.

Harden has become one of the game's best passers, but in reality it's more fair to say he's one of the best decision makers. D'Antonio admitted that Harden's innate talent has made the transition a smooth one, and on Friday night it resulted in their 45th victory of the season as the playoffs near.

"James is also a guy that can (pass) and know when the right time for him to score is, too," Anderson said. "We trust his decision making, and he's just a superior player. What he’s doing, I’ve never played with anybody like that. I don’t know that there’s been many guys like that."

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.