Bulls

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.”

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.