Bulls

LeBron maximizes young core: 'That's what I came back here for'

shumplebronslide.png

LeBron maximizes young core: 'That's what I came back here for'

This is why LeBron James returned to Cleveland.

When the four-time league MVP made the decision to sign with the Cavaliers 10 months ago he envisioned playing alongside a young and talented group with which to mold into a championship unit, a stark contrast and a new challenge from the veteran-laced Miami Heat team he had taken to four straight NBA Finals appearances.

Plenty has changed since James' arrival and the path to a championship has been altered, but his goals have remained intact. And he took another step Thursday in the Cavs' 94-73 Game 6 victory over the Bulls.

"I do everything for my team. I do everything for my teammates. I want these guys to be able to feel this moment, that’s what I came back here for," James said. "I got four guys that never made the postseason that play a huge role for this team. And for me to be able to bring them joy playing the game of basketball, that’s what I care about more than anything."

James made those comments following a near triple-double - 15 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists - and being flanked by two of those players making their playoff debuts this year, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson. The pair of 24-year-olds stood in valiantly for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James' two primary sidekicks dealing with injuries, with Dellavedova scoring a game-high 19 points and Thompson grabbing 17 rebounds.

[MORE: Weight from previous years comes crashing down in one night for Bulls]

James spoke considerably in his postgame press conference about the mental growth of his young group. After winning 97 games in the four years following James' departure from Cleveland in 2010, the inexperienced Cavaliers were thrust into the national spotlight and put under the NBA's microscope on a nightly basis. Even the trade additions post-Decision II - Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith and Timofey Mozgov - had never been out of the first round of the playoffs, leaving James as the unquestioned on-court leader and, perhaps more importantly, the role model to create the foundation for a group with championship aspirations.

"The way we approach the season was, we have a chance to play with someone that’ll go down as one of the best ever. So, it just motivates us to work harder," Thompson said before recalling James being the first player in the practice facility on the first day of practice. "And for us, we know we’ve got to catch up. We’ve got to do the extra things. If he’s doing that, we’ve got to do double, triple, because this opportunity has definitely been a blessing for us and we’ve got to make the most of it and help him."

That they did Thursday night. With Love sidelined and Irving exiting the game for good after aggravating a knee injury early in the second quarter, the Cavaliers were again looking at needing a heroic performance from James to get past a veteran-laced Bulls team attempting to stave off elimination on their home floor. And when James' shot wasn't falling - he missed 11 of his first 14 shots - he turned to the teammates he had mentored all year for help.

And they responded. James doled out 11 assists, seven of which resulted in 3-pointers, and stepped up defensively, limiting the Bulls to 42 points in the final three quarters. He managed the game and got the most out of his young core.

"It’s really what LeBron is doing to you," Tom Thibodeau said of the Bulls' defense. "Because of what he’s doing, it’s opening up things for them. If you look at LeBron’s line, you can say 7-for-23 (shooting). But what he did in that game, he controlled it. He made plays, he found the open 3s and he had not only 11 assists, but a lot of other plays that led to a second pass and a wide open 3."

This certainly isn't how James drew it up when the season began. He expected to be sitting next to a point guard and a power forward at the podium, just not "Delly" and "Double-T." Irving, not Shumpert, was supposed to be going toe-to-toe with Derrick Rose. Love, not Smith, was supposed to be draining clutch 3-pointers. Anderson Varejao, not Mozgov, was supposed to be the Cavs' rim protector.

[MORE: Lifeless Bulls fall to Cavaliers in series clincher]

Things change, and James has adapted with his team. He admitted after the game that the Cavs "have no room for error," but their young core and underrated depth has allowed as much, especially against the Bulls. They won a game in which James went 10-for-30. Irving played 12 minutes in Game 6 and the Cavs won by 21 points. Smith missed two games and the Cavs survived.

"We’re never out of any game. Every game in the playoffs is going to be tough, every game is going to be close," Shumpert said. "Crazy stuff is going to happen, as you saw in this series. As long as we got each other and we keep everything in this locker room we’ll be fine."

And it all starts with No. 23.

This is why LeBron James returned to Cleveland.

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

payne_640x360_1185357379553.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

PHILADELPHIA -- The Bulls’ starting point guard missing the team’s season opener is less than ideal, but that is the dilemma Fred Hoiberg and company are faced with.

Hoiberg made the announcement during shoot around that Kris Dunn would miss the first game of his third NBA season for personal reasons, but noted that his absence is “excused.”

The Bulls will turn to Cameron Payne as they get set to play the Sixers in Philadelphia Thursday night. The 24-year-old guard out of Murray State will be tasked with running the offense against one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Because of injuries and the numbers game at guard, Payne hasn’t had a chance to show Bulls fans much since he came over from Oklahoma City in a trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder.

“I feel like I can be way better,” Payne said when asked about the opportunity to show what he can do. “I know I didn’t make a lot of shots but it’s really not about that. It’s about getting my team involved and make sure everyone gets the ball in their spots to contribute.”

Payne showed flashes over the last 22 games of the 2017-18 season (14 starts), shooting 42 percent from three and averaging 4.6 assists per game in that stretch. The shooting stroke didn’t show up early in the preseason for Payne.

He was better in the team’s final exhibition against Denver and has shown enough to Hoiberg to earn the starting nod. He’ll have his work cut out for him tonight.

“Obviously we’ve been working on different coverages based on having a full roster, but things like this happen,” Hoiberg said when asked what this does to his game prep. “It’s going to be electric in here. They’re going to come out and play extremely hard and extremely physical. That’s who they are and we have to be ready for that. It’s a little bit of shock and awe with (the Sixers). You have to weather that first storm and hopefully give ourselves a chance with great effort.”

After Payne, the Bulls will have Ryan Arcidiacono as the first point guard off the bench. They’ll also have the services of newcomer Tyler Ulis, who will be in uniform tonight. Hoiberg mentioned that he feels comfortable with Zach Lavine bringing the ball up as well. He also mentioned that Jabari Parker will have his hands on the ball an awful lot with the team’s second unit.

The season hasn’t even started yet and the Bulls are already missing several key players. After an impressive rookie season, Lauri Markkanen will start the season on the shelf with a high grade lateral elbow sprain. Denzel Valentine will also miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury. The team may have Cristiano Felicio, also dealing with an ankle injury, depending on his pregame workout goes.

“It’s not ideal but it is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “It happens at this level. You just have to go out and do the best job you can. It’s an opportunity for our guys to step up with two of our better players out of the lineup – really three with Denzel as a guy that can make plays in that second unit.”   

Hoiberg, Bulls already facing touch decisions on Opening Night

Hoiberg, Bulls already facing touch decisions on Opening Night

The Bulls’ starting point guard missing the team’s season opener is less than ideal, but that is the dilemma Fred Hoiberg and company are faced with.
 
Hoiberg made the announcement during shoot around that Kris Dunn would miss the first game of his third NBA season for personal reasons, but noted that his absence is “excused.” 
 
The Bulls will turn to Cameron Payne as they get set to play the Sixers in Philadelphia Thursday night. The 24-year-old guard out of Murray State will be tasked with running the offense against one of the better defensive teams in the league.
 
Because of injuries and the numbers game at guard, Payne hasn’t had a chance to show Bulls fans much since he came over from Oklahoma City in a trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder.
 
“I feel like I can be way better,” Payne said when asked about the opportunity to show what he can do. “I know I didn’t make a lot of shots but it’s really not about that. It’s about getting my team involved and make sure everyone gets the ball in their spots to contribute.”
 
Payne showed flashes over the last 22 games of the 2017-18 season (14 starts), shooting 42 percent from three and averaging 4.6 assists per game in that stretch. The shooting stroke didn’t show up early in the preseason for Payne. 
 
He was better in the team’s final exhibition against Denver and has shown enough to Hoiberg to earn the starting nod. He’ll have his work cut out for him tonight.
 
“Obviously we’ve been working on different coverages based on having a full roster, but things like this happen,” Hoiberg said when asked what this does to his game prep. “It’s going to be electric in here. They’re going to come out and play extremely hard and extremely physical. That’s who they are and we have to be ready for that. It’s a little bit of shock and awe with (the Sixers). You have to weather that first storm and hopefully give ourselves a chance with great effort.”
 
After Payne, the Bulls will have Ryan Arcidiacono as the first point guard off the bench. They’ll also have the services of newcomer Tyler Ulis, who will be in uniform tonight. Hoiberg mentioned that he feels comfortable with Zach Lavine bringing the ball up as well. He also mentioned that Jabari Parker will have his hands on the ball an awful lot with the team’s second unit.
 
The season hasn’t even started yet and the Bulls are already missing several key players. After an impressive rookie season, Lauri Markkanen will start the season on the shelf with a high grade lateral elbow sprain. Denzel Valentine will also miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury. The team may have Cristiano Felicio, also dealing with an ankle injury, depending on his pregame workout goes.
 
“It’s not ideal but it is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “It happens at this level. You just have to go out and do the best job you can. It’s an opportunity for our guys to step up with two of our better players out of the lineup – really three with Denzel as a guy that can make plays in that second unit.”