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

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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 Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 93-92 loss to Toronto.

0:45 - Reaction to losing another close game

2:00 - Kendall Gill stops by to give Matt Peck a hard time about Derrick Rose

3:30 - On Wendell Carter Jr and wanting more

4:45 - Viewer comment on Bulls shooting 46 three-point attempts

7:20 - Concern over Lauri Markkanen

8:10 - Viewer comment still believing in Lauri

9:40 - Viewer comment on Wendell Carter and Daniel Gafford

12:10 - Viewer comment on running more pick n roll w Zach and Lauri

15:35 - Viewer question on Otto Porter and Hutchison

16:30 - Viewer trade idea: Kevin Love for Markkanen

17:15 - Any comfort in coming close to beating two of the top teams in the East?

20:30 - Viewer comment on losing games

23:00 - Viewer comment on Coby should start

24:05 - Viewer comment pandering to John Sabine

24:40 - Sabine shares his weird dream that involves Jim Boylen

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Dwindling attendance shows Bulls fans don't want moral victories

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USA Today

Dwindling attendance shows Bulls fans don't want moral victories

Following the Bulls’ second heartbreaking loss in as many nights, Jim Boylen had the floor.

“I coach by faith. I coach and teach every day on where I think we’re going to be. When that’s going to happen, when that’s going to break through, I’m not sure. But I’m going to keep coaching that way. We’ll watch from this, learn from it and grow,” a passionate Boylen said. “We’re playing good, hard basketball. We have to win two or three more possessions — one more defensive rebound, one more loose ball, one more open 3. That’s the difference in this. And I’m not going to let any negativity deter us from that mission. That’s what we’re going to do.”

And with that, the Bulls’ coach exited his postgame news conference, an atypical move for one of the more accessible coaches in the league.

Nobody could fault Boylen. At this point, people are tired of words anyway. And judging from the announced attendance of 14,775, the smallest since Dec. 16, 2004, people are tired of the Bulls’ losing ways, too.

Most any coach in the NBA brings his starters back with 6 to 8 minutes to go, as Boylen did with the Bulls leading by eight. Most any coach in the NBA goes to his most talented player, as Boylen did in calling Zach LaVine’s number, with the game on the line.

In the broken record department, the starters, with Denzel Valentine in for an ineffective Kris Dunn, coughed up another fourth-quarter lead. LaVine, who went scoreless in the second half after scoring 20 points in the first, missed over a double-team near the buzzer.

Making matters worse? LaVine afterward said he should’ve passed to a wide-open Daniel Gafford, in for the fouled-out Wendell Carter Jr.

“I saw Marc Gasol there. I tried to get him in the air and draw a foul. I’ve looked at now. I just wish I would’ve took an extra dribble to see the double-team on me,” LaVine said. “I could’ve hit Daniel. I could’ve kicked it back out. I thought I was making the right play by trying to get in the air and get to the free throw line. It just didn’t happen.”

How are these for some disturbing numbers? Valentine, who wasn’t even in the rotation until recently, took as many fourth-quarter shots as the four starters who played. The bench outscored the starters 18-3 in the final period.

For contrast, the Raptors’ starters scored 18 of their 22 fourth-quarter points.

The Bulls are going to keep recording moral victories, not real ones, until they learn how to close games.

“The starters’ job is to come back in, get re-engaged in the game and close it out. That’s what they did. They brought their guys in and they closed the game out,” Boylen said, alluding to the Raptors. “We have to learn to do that. We’re close. We’re right there. That’s the next step.”

To LaVine’s credit, he’s playing through a shoulder that Boylen called “banged up,” even though it hasn’t landed him officially on the injury report. He also briefly got the wind knocked out of him when OG Anunoby blocked his shot from behind and elbowed him in the back.

“We’re fine. Obviously, you’re upset in the moment. But it’s not like we’re not playing with these teams and competing with them all the way down to the fourth quarter,” LaVine said. “It shouldn’t have even been a one-point possession but that’s what we were left at and we just didn’t make the play.

“It feels like a little bit of a broken record. This is our job. We have to compete every time on the floor.”

The Bulls are on a three-game losing streak by a combined eight points. LaVine has missed game-winning attempts twice in the last three games. They still have yet to beat a team with a winning record.

“I can’t speak for everybody or the fans. I get a lot of positive feedback about our group,” Boylen said. “I think people understand what we’re trying to build. It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games. Nobody is running from that. But this team is playing hard and competing and learning and growing. I think people can see that too.

“We’re going to keep pounding the rock and playing hard and working at it. I’m confident we’ll break through.”

It’s Boylen’s job to remain positive. Is anybody else confident?

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