Bulls

LeBron's epic performance turns out to be one Cavs needed

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LeBron's epic performance turns out to be one Cavs needed

Derrick Rose grabbed the rebound in mid-stride, charging down court with less than a minute remaining in Game 5. With the Bulls in the midst of a 17-4 run that had pulled them back within two, 101-99, Rose had only Matthew Dellavedova between him and the basket. Or so he thought.

Rose picked up his dribble at the free throw line and took two hard steps to his right, with Dellavedova reading those steps to move in front of the Bulls' point guard. That pushed Rose off-balance before he attempted a floater and was met by a leaping LeBron James, who recorded his third block of the night to maintain the Cavaliers' lead. Out of a timeout Jimmy Butler missed a 3-pointer from the corner, with James securing his 12th and final rebound before Cleveland used six free throws in the final 17 seconds to ice the game, and perhaps the series.

That sequence - James had penetrated to find a wide open Kyrie Irving in the corner before the Rose rebound/transition layup attempt - was indicative of the night James had Tuesday, and the way the two-time NBA champion has performed the entire series.

Yes, James' MVP-like stat line - 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks and zero turnovers in 42 minutes - was everything the Cavaliers wanted and hoped for when he made the decision to return home 10 months ago. But in a game where the opposition wouldn't go away quietly for a third straight game, James' performance Tuesday evening was everything the Cavaliers needed to maintain a stronghold on this second-round series.

[MORE BULLS-CAVS: Taj Gibson's ejection controversial and costly in Bulls' loss]

"LeBron was outstanding in every element of the game," Cavs head coach David Blatt said after the game. "You can't pick a thing that he didn't do at the highest level."

Blatt's comments were a stark contrast from what James had done the prior week in Chicago. With Kyrie Irving aggravating a foot sprain early in Game 3 on Friday, the Bulls defense was able to focus more of its attention on keeping James out of the paint and living with his outside jumpers. The results were telling, as James went 7-for-31 (22.5%) outside the painted area in Games 3 and 4, with only 24 field goal attempts coming in the paint. In Games 1 and 2, James had attempted 32 shots in the paint as opposed to just 19 outside it.

But the fierce, attacking James was back in Game 5. He quickly drew two fouls on Jimmy Butler in the first quarter, forcing the Bulls' top defender to the bench just 7 minutes in. From there James was honed in, scoring seven of his 10 first-half field goals in the paint and three other jumpers out of the left post. He finished with 24 first-half points on just 12 shots, 10 of them makes.

[MORE BULLS-CAVS: Kyrie Irving overcomes limitations to kickstart Cavaliers]

"Any time you get some shots going early you feel pretty good. I was able to get my jumper going, able to get my post-up game pretty early and my attack game," James said. "So, just try to feed off it. Feed off the rhythm I had and stay in it as long as I could."

When that rhythm was thrown off in the third quarter by the staunch defense of Butler, as well as constant help defense rotating from the weak side to the post on James' side of the floor, James found his rhythm distributing. Four of his six assists came directly out of halftime, including three in a four-possession span after the Bulls had cut a 10-point halftime deficit to just one. Then James added a three-point play, taking advantage of rookie Nikola Mirotic's subpar defense, to push the lead back out to nine in a matter of 3+ minutes.

Even as the Bulls pulled out all the stops - they made good on their promise to attack Irving's hobbled foot by feeding Mike Dunleavy early and often - it was James' aggressive first half that opened up the Cavs offense in the third quarter, as they connected on 55 percent of their shots.

"(It) opens up the floor. Guys are forced to help, leaves us driving angles, leaves us open shots," said Iman Shumpert of James' aggressiveness, "and it gives us the world of confidence to know that our big gun is ready to go."

[MORE BULLS-CAVS: Bulls fight but come up short in series-turning loss to Cavs]

James sensed closing time was near early in the fourth quarter. Though he began the stanza on the bench, the Cavs pushed their nine-point third-quarter lead to 15 by the time James checked in at the 8:35 mark. He showed poise in attacking Butler off the dribble for two and then drained a step-back 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down to push the lead back out to 15 inside 7 minutes to play.

At that moment it appeared the Cavs had seen the last of the Bulls' effort in Game 5 - Taj Gibson had been ejected for kicking Dellavedova and Rose had scored four points since a 12-point opening stanza. But Tom Thibodeau's group clamped down and strung together an improbable 11-0 run in just under 2 minutes to cut the deficit back to four, 97-93. So once again the Cavaliers called upon James to stop the bleeding, which he did by splitting a double team and finding a wide open Tristan Thompson under the basket for a dunk to stop the run. The next trip down James earned a pair of free throws - which he hit - to push the lead out to eight.

Back-to-back triples from Butler made it a two-point game before James clamped down defensively on Rose, swatting away the transition layup and, shortly after, any chance of a comeback.

For as well as the Cavaliers played as a team - shooting 50 percent, making eight 3-pointers, winning the rebounding battle, 11 team turnovers - with Irving (25 points), Thompson (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Smith (+18 in 29 minutes) all contributing, again and again they looked to James to cease any sort of momentum the Bulls gained. And The King answered.

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The first statistic James looks for in the box score each game is turnovers, and on Tuesday night he found a "0" in that column. For all the touches James received in the post, the crosscourt passes he made to open 3-point shooters and the drives into traffic he engaged in, not once did he turn the ball over. For Shumpert, who had 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, James' model efficiency (he finished 14-for-24 from the field) was his biggest improvement after he committed 15 turnovers alone in Games 3 and 4.

"He made sure that we got a shot every time," Shumpert said. "Even if it wasn’t the best shot, we got attempts. And with the guys that we got, as long as we get a shot at the rim every time down the floor we’ll be fine."

A game that felt like a runaway win for Cleveland was much closer than it should have been. The Bulls haven't won two games in the series, including one in Cleveland, on luck alone. And understanding the fallout that may occur this offseason with Thibodeau and the front office, they won't go away quietly. So while Tuesday night felt like vintage James full of highlight reel dunks, blocks and passes, the truth is that the Cavs' tiny margin for error was filled by an epic performance from James they needed to earn a victory.

"Thibs is one of the best to do it, especially on the defensive end," Smith said of the Bulls' defense. "He makes it tough for us. Fortunately we’ve got a pretty good in player in '23' who bails us out."

Bulls react to Kobe Bryant's stunning death with emotion, eloquence

Bulls react to Kobe Bryant's stunning death with emotion, eloquence

The tears streaming down Jim Boylen’s face said all you needed to know about the Bulls’ reaction to the stunning death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other victims in a Sunday helicopter crash that has rocked the NBA community.

Like Bryant, Boylen has daughters who love basketball. Like Bryant, Boylen is uber competitive and serious about his job.

But he’s a father and a human being first.

“Obviously, a very emotional, tearful day in our building. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Kobe Bryant’s family, the other families that are involved in the accident,” Boylen said. “These things hit your team and the league on different levels. There’s the rookie out of high school breaking into the starting lineup, one of the hardest workers ever and becoming an All-Star and a champion and a Hall of Fame player. And then there’s the second half of your life where you earn respect from the basketball community and you’re a husband and a father and a mentor for the rest of the league. Difficult day.

“And if you have children like many of us do, it’s painful.”

The Bulls discussed the tragedy after a Monday morning shootaround to prepare for a game against the Spurs that everyone acknowledged would be difficult to play. The United Center has projected images of Bryant, smiling in his Lakers uniform, since Sunday night and fans have started a makeshift shrine outside the building.

The Bulls will have a moment of silence to honor Bryant, and Thad Young, who will wear Bryant’s “Zoom Kobe 4 ‘Prelude’” shoe, said it’s likely they’ll take a 24-second violation to honor one of the numbers Bryant wore.

“Kobe has always inspired me — and not just me but other guys around this league, from young to older guys,” Young said. “He's always been very inspiring to each and every one of us just because of what be brought to the game and his life outside of the game. He was pretty much an open book. You know, he let us see how he treated his wife and kids. He let us see the behind the scenes of how he lived his life.

“We thank him for that. He showed us how to continue to walk this Earth and be upstanding citizens and he showed us how to be not just a person to walk this earth but to be a loving husband, father and family member.”

LaVine, who wears No. 8 in part to honor Bryant, acknowledged the difficulty of playing Monday night but said it’s the best way to honor the future Hall of Famer’s legacy.

“It’s going to be really sad, but I think it’s something that he would have wanted — for people to get back into the game and play,” LaVine said. “I feel like that’s how he would approach it. So I’m going to go out there and play the way I do, play my heart out. Obviously, everybody is going to have a heavy heart. But we still have a job to do. It’s terrible you have to play under those circumstances, but I feel like it’s something he would want as well.’’

LaVine grew up idolizing Bryant.

“He inspired a whole generation of kids pretty much. They wanted to be like him. It’s like kids in the 80s and 90s wanted to be like Mike. We wanted to be like Kobe,” LaVine said. “Growing up and seeing the different highlights of his hard work, I feel like that’s one of the biggest things that was instilled in me was his hard work. I try to bring that to my game. And his passion for the game, how ruthless he was as a competitor. But it’s more than that as a basketball player. He was a father. There were more families on there. It’s just terrible what happened, man. It’s just such a loss in so many different ways.”

LaVine proudly detailed one anecdote from his rookie season when he scored 28 points off the bench in a Timberwolves road victory at Staples Center on Nov. 28, 2014.

“I just remember Kobe was guarding me in the fourth quarter, and obviously I knew growing up and idolizing him that he always guarded the best player [late],” LaVine said. “I had a really good game so he was guarding me, and we were standing at the free-throw line and he tapped me on the butt and said, ‘You know, keep going.’ It was almost shocking to me that I was in that situation as a 19-year-old. It was like, ‘This is a dude I idolized, he’s guarding me.’ It was just surreal.”

LaVine also recalled how he fouled him to send him to the free-throw line that gave Bryant the points to pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. But LaVine’s takeaways from Bryant were as much professional as personal.

“I try and take his hard work,” LaVine said. “He was somebody that after games, I heard so many different stories from former players that have coached me where if he had a bad game he would stay all night. Or during the summertimes, he wouldn’t take time off.

“Obviously, everybody is different. But I just try and take that mindset of working hard and being in the gym and his mindset of coming in to just kill every game. That was his mindset. There will never be another Kobe Bryant. There’s only one person like that ever. He touched so many lives in the way he affected basketball, and beyond that as well.’’

Young also acknowledged Bryant’s competitiveness.

“He's just always been a clear-cut assassin. There's a reason they call him the Black Mamba. He's one of those guys that's very ferocious, very competitive, do whatever it takes to win, even if it means dunking on his grandmother,” the veteran forward said. “But at the end of the day, he's one of the greatest to ever do it, one of the realest to ever do it. He's put this league on his back. He's helped make the league to what it is today. He's helped inspire and lead the way for guys like me and younger guys to come into this league and be able to do a lot and be able to continue to grind.”

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Kobe Bryant to be inducted into Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2020

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USA TODAY

Kobe Bryant to be inducted into Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2020

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2020 was already set up to be a special one, with some of the greatest names in the sport, names like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, set to get in. But now that class takes on an even greater significance as Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported that Kobe Bryant, who tragically died in a helicopter crash in California on Sunday, will be inducted into the  Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Basketball Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo stated that the 2020 class is expected to be one of the "most epic" classes in the history of the sport.

Along with Bryant, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2020 is expected to include some of his fiercest rivals. The list of players that could be inducted in 2020 includes the aforementioned all-time great San Antonio Spurs forward Duncan (played a total of 30 playoff games against Bryant), Pistons legends Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups (defeated Bryant and the Lakers in 2004 NBA Finals), and Shawn Marion, whose Suns teams were a huge threat to the Lakers dynasty throughout the 2000s.

The full Hall of Fame class will be revealed in April. In departing from the usual selection process, Colangelo maintained that "Kobe will be honored the way he should be."

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