Jimmy Butler, Bulls wax Thunder to begin extended road trip

Jimmy Butler, Bulls wax Thunder to begin extended road trip

OKLAHOMA CITY—Dwyane Wade twisted and spun and turned poor Anthony Morrow into a confusing, dizzying sap, unleashing a soft baseline fadeaway that danced around the rim while he faded near the Bulls’ bench.

As it nestled into the rim, Wade turned to a seated Rajon Rondo and slapped him in the chest, apparently so impressed with himself that even Wade could show Rondo some love to start the Bulls’ critical road trip.

There was plenty of love in the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and plenty of energy—both from the Chicago Bulls as they put together their most comprehensive effort in quite awhile, pounding the Oklahoma City Thunder 128-100 on Wednesday night.

For all the talk about the road presenting an opportunity for the Bulls to bond more and heal some wounds that were opened or at least revealed to the public in the last week or so, a good old-fashioned butt-kicking has a way of making people seem to like each other a little more.

“It was one of our better games from start to finish,” Wade said. “It was a good way to start this trip off.”

The Bulls started their first long western swing with a big win over Portland and that confidence carried through as the Bulls went 4-2 in November, creating a sense of optimism they’ve been unable to fulfill in the time since.

Wednesday harkened back to the days where the Bulls were thought to be good, and interesting. Now, at least they’re interesting and on this night, they were very good, jumping out to a 10-point lead in the first quarter.

Next to a short stint between the end of the first and start of the second where the Thunder took a slim lead while the Bulls struggled to score, they quickly gathered themselves to dominate throughout—a rarity in recent time.

“I thought we did a great job of following the game plan and getting back and loading in transition,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

And with the Oklahoma City Thunder having very little snap to their punches—unless you count Russell Westbrook punching a Jimmy Butler breakaway layup into the third row—the Bulls had a pretty easy and efficient time against the Thunder.

Shooting 60 percent through three quarters and 61 percent overall, the Bulls didn’t even need to hit triples but played with the desired pace and unselfishness Hoiberg dreams about.

“From the second quarter on I thought we were really good as far as our pace,” Hoiberg said. “We had 28 fast break points, getting the ball up the court and sharing it again.”

Wade had seven assists to go along with his seven rebounds and 18 points in 24 minutes while Rondo had six assists in 16 minutes. Butler, who could barely move in their first meeting as he was in the early stages of an illness, made up for it with 28 points in 30 minutes, hitting 11 of 17 shots and adding five assists with four rebounds.

Jerian Grant was off to a good start, scoring nine and hitting his first four shots from the field, taking turns with other perimeter defenders in guarding the unguardable Westbrook.

“I don’t ever think Westbrook is going to be tired. That guy, he’s not human,” Hoiberg said. “It doesn’t even look like he sweats when he’s out there on the floor. He’s a machine.”

Butler took the bulk of the assignment, and Westbrook shot 10 of 23 for 28 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 29 minutes but didn’t make a truly impactful play when it counted.

“You have to challenge every shot he puts up,” Butler said. “He can go downhill at the basket, he can make the outside shot. You just have to try your best to make everything tougher.”

The Thunder were held to 36 percent shooting and kept bricking triples, shooting 8-for-35. Although the Thunder seemed to be teetering well into the first two quarters, on the second night of a back to back, the Bulls only held an eight-point lead going into halftime.

Then Wade took over in the third with scoring and playing, with some nice look-away passes for assists while he couldn’t get it going early, then once he did, carried the Bulls offense. 

They stretched their lead to 21 at 76-55 midway through and cruised through the rest of the night.

He allowed Butler to rest a little on offense while Westbrook, the high-usage counterpart, was burning oil trying to keep the Thunder in the game. He had 27 by the end of the third but his team was awful shooting-wise and couldn’t get anything going.

It was just what the Bulls needed at just the right time.

Bulls observations: Bulls smother Magic and mount furious, historic comeback

Bulls observations: Bulls smother Magic and mount furious, historic comeback

The title ticker flicks to six. The Bulls overcame an 18-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Orlando Magic 93-88 and grab a 2-0 Eastern Conference series lead. Observations:

A team effort

This game was such that The Sports Channel's player of the game award was bestowed upon 'The Chicago Bulls.'

At a glance, that may feel peculiar. Only three Bulls tallied double-figure point totals (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman) and as a group they shot 40% from the field. But this one was truly a clinic in smothering defense, and contributions from all around made it possible.

Pippen's length and work on the glass (he had six offensive rebounds) seemed to impact the game at its most crucial moments. Ron Harper ended the night with two steals, but you could have said he had 10 and I would have believed you. He was everywhere, and continues to cement himself as on the short-list of most underrated contributors during the dynasty. Rodman and the team's rotating cast of bigs played a huge role in bottling Shaq as the Bulls made their decisive third-quarter run. Jud Buechler and Steve Kerr poured in timely buckets. The team's fullcourt press ground the Magic down to perfection.

All in all, it amounted to flipping a 15-point halftime deficit (which in the third quarter grew to 18) into a five-point victory — and a demoralizing one at that. Fifty-three first-half points by the Magic against this team was a feat. Their 35 in the latter half  compared to 55 for the Bulls) felt a correction. Soul-snatching stuff.

A different time

The United Center was an absolute madhouse, you could feel it through the television screen. These Bulls give 'flipping the switch' new meaning.

It all culminated with 'MVP' chants for Michael Jordan in the game's waning moments, as he put the finishing touches on a 35-point, six-assist, four-steal outing. It is astounding how routine he makes these types of nights look.

And, oh yeah. This was a thing.

No, I mean a really different time

In a playoff run filled with celebrities, this has to be the most riotous beneficiary of a Rodman jersey toss so far: 

Chicago really was the center of the basketball universe.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

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Zach LaVine ducks exits players-only NBA 2K20 tournament in first round

Zach LaVine ducks exits players-only NBA 2K20 tournament in first round

It's day 74 of self-quarantine, and Zach LaVine bowed out of the players-only NBA 2K20 tournament on ESPN with a 57-41 first-round loss to Deandre Ayton.

Ayton played as the Houston Rockets. LaVine played as the Miami Heat. Yes, that means he was controlling Jimmy Butler, who the Bulls swapped for LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to Lauri Markkanen to spark the rebuild three short years ago.

Fortunately, no stats are available from this one, so I am physically incapable of breaking down Butler's performance (though a few bricked layups stand out). But LaVine did struggle to get offense all game, scoring just four points in the fourth quarter after trimming a nine-point deficit down to three entering the final period.

Perhaps he would have fared better playing as the team that employs him:

Alas. The quality of the on-court product in the Ayton-LaVine matchup waxed and mostly waned, with LaVine saying he hadn't played 2K since his rookie year.

But the true entertainment value came from the banter on the side between the two.

It began friendly, with Ayton teaching LaVine how to throw alley-oops (double-tap Y, Zach! come on) followed by LaVine chiding Ayton for a dunk he uncorked on him when Phoenix visited Chicago back in February.

Then, the two took a few moments to appreciate Shaq Harrison — frankly, something all of us can do more of. LaVIne called Harrison "my dog" and fondly recalled a conversation in which Harrison good-naturedly lamented having to guard LaVine in practice in Chicago after being tasked with checking Devin Booker in his time in Phoenix. After spending a year with the Suns, Harrison signed with the Bulls in advance of Ayton's rookie season, but it appears the two are friendly.

The topic of conversation eventually shifted to favorite NBA arenas to play in. Ayton answered Madison Square Garden — a fine choice — while LaVine cited the Sacramento King's old Sleepy Train Arena as a true "shooter's gym." The context to that comment is... Something (albeit completely inocuous). 

All the while, Ayton pulled away as LaVine largely spammed contested 3s in the second half. Considering the real-life Bulls' woes in 2019-20, it was all perfectly on the nose. Especially so was LaVine intentionally fouling Ayton, down 16 with five seconds left, to squeeze in an extra possession — though luckily no timeouts were called.

And finally, before signing off, LaVine was sure to make his feelings on participating in the dunk contest once again clear:

Fair enough. LaVine is more than just a dunker. He's also a prolific scorer, clutch late-game performer and near All-Star level player with a tremendous amount of potential.

But if he wants to add '2K star' to that list of distinctions, he'll have to keep hitting the sticks.

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