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Kobe Bryant's last game in Chicago full of nostalgia, disbelief and appreciation

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Kobe Bryant's last game in Chicago full of nostalgia, disbelief and appreciation

The “Kobe! Kobe!” chants began as a dull roar in corners of the United Center, prompting a sheepish smile from Kobe Bryant as the Bulls temporarily held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of his last game in Chicago.

It grew to “We want Kobe! We want Kobe!” as Bryant pumped his fist in satisfaction. Not because Bryon Scott called him to re-enter, but a Lakers 3-pointer cut a comfortable lead to a near panic-inducing 11-point Bulls lead.

But with a end of a back to back in Milwaukee the next day, Bryant had to save his remaining energy for the next stop on the tour, after giving this set of fans what they want.

After laughing it off, he appeared to mouth the words, “I’m coming back.”

The obligation of giving the fans what they paid for in this farewell tour got the best of him, as emerged from the bench and walked to the scorer’s table as camera phones and actual cameras popped in anticipation of the greatest since the greatest giving them one final glimpse of what used to be.

“Yeah, it’s a unbelievable feeling. I can’t even tell you…” said Bryant, before playfully knocking off a Gatorade cup from the podium, flashing that trademark edge with a smile. “After all these years, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel good.”

There wasn’t even as much a concern for Bryant actually coming back in to finish off a teetering squad and continuing a hot streak that started in the third quarter where he torched Mike Dunleavy, much to the delight of the fans in attendance.

Catch, dribble, dribble, shoulder fake, fadeaway to the baseline that looked eerily like the guy he used to emulate.

The crowd stood in anticipation, almost wanting to will Bryant to a point where it could bear witness to one final Mamba Moment, with poor Dunleavy on an island.

Wing catch, hard right dribble, effortless pull-up 21 footer.

“No, no. No, no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Bryant said when asked if he ever envisioned receiving these types of receptions on the road. “It’s, a little strange to me at first because you’re used to being booed so many times and somebody’s actually cheering you, you’re not sure how to respond. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol's 'special night' saying farewell to friend Kobe Bryant]

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg didn’t know how to react, as he noticed the fans caring less about the score and a possible collapse but more about seeing the living legend one more time.

“It is very well-deserved for Kobe, everything he’s getting in his farewell sendoff,” said Hoiberg, words easily said after a win than a stomach turning loss. “It is pretty cool to be a part of it.”

Being a part of it means taking on the mantle as the league’s elder statesman, something that hasn’t gone lost on Bryant, especially in the wake of peers Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson being announced as finalists to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the same weekend as Bryant’s last All-Star game.

“It freaks me out every time I hear about it,” Bryant said. “(Former teammate) Tyronn Lue’s coaching. Luke Walton’s coaching. Commentators have been retired for years that were rookies when I first came in. It’s the weirdest thing in the world.”

Building it up, digging deep to what once was an endless reservoir of energy every night has taken its toll, as with 25 games left in Kobe Bryant’s career, the finality of things hasn’t hit him yet.

It seems to have hit Chicagoans in a different way, as for years, Bulls fans would cringe at the thought, let alone the mention of a Jordan comparison. Now, though, as they knew they were getting a last gasp of the close thing to a reasonable facsimile to the man immortalized in statue form, it turned to appreciation or a fan-like form of lust.

There were plenty of Jordan jerseys in the stands, from the Bulls variety to the Dream Team garb, symbolizing the closest thing to a reason to pull those dusty oldies from the closet and wear them proudly without looking like someone stuck in the past.

“Our competitiveness is second to none,” Bryant said of the comparisons to Jordan. “We’re pretty obsessive about how to get an edge, how to compete with people, to the point where like when I was playing if I said ‘Hi’ to a player they’d look at me sideways like ‘what is he up to?’ I think it’s that attention to detail and that competitive spirit that really makes that connection. Not too many players as maniacal as we’ve been.”

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

With 45.3 seconds left, Bryant exited for the final time and received a standing ovation from the Chicago faithful and the Bulls players on the floor, very dissimilar to his entrance in this building so many years ago.

In his first game in Chicago, after Jordan easily spun around him for a dunk, TNT commentator Verne Lundquist said, “(Kobe’s) now in a post-graduate course…talk about a fast track.”

“That was like the coolest thing. It was,” recalled Bryant. “Because I had seen that spin move so many times and I knew he was going to do it.”

And just like everyone knows Bryant is walking away from the game, it’s still hard to believe the day is here.

“It’s always different, there’s always an air here,” Bryant said. “You can feel the championships and the history here. This place has always been that for me.”

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.