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.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

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."

Five observations from Bulls-Sixers: Well, at least the first quarter was good

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USA TODAY

Five observations from Bulls-Sixers: Well, at least the first quarter was good

Here are five observations from the Bulls' season-opener loss to the Sixers on Thursday night.

1. How about that first quarter?

In what could wind up being the most exciting quarter all year, the Bulls began the year with a 41-point explosion. The Bulls shot 63 percent in the quarter, at one point scoring on an absurd 11 consecutive possessions. Bobby Portis scored 13 points and hit all five shots, while Zach LaVine added 15 of his own. The ball was moving, they played quickly and caught Philadelphia out of position at times and took care of the ball. The fun times didn't last, but it wound up being the highest scoring first quarter in a Bulls season opener. It was fun. The other three quarters? Well, the first quarter was fun.

2. The defense is as bad as we thought it was

Granted, Kris Dunn is far and away the Bulls' best defender and was out while attending the birth of his baby boy. But this was still about as bad a defensive performance as the Bulls could have had, even against an offensive juggernaut like the Sixers. Communication was off almost from the start, and they always looked two steps behind. The Sixers got just about anything they wanted in transition, meaning it was a moot point that they struggled from beyond the arc. From Jabari Parker to Zach LaVine, it wasn't pretty. They're going to struggle all year long. Dunn isn't going to make enough of a difference. Shoutout to Wendell Carter's block on Ben Simmons, the lone defensive highlight of the night

3. Bobby Portis' bet is off to a good start

Portis was guilty of an ugly defensive performance, as Dario Saric posted a monster line by out-hustling his counterpart much of the night. But offensively Portis continues to shine after a great preseason. Portis, now officially in a contract year, went for 20 points and 10 rebounds and added a steal, a block and three 3-pointers in 29 minutes. Without Lauri Markkanen he's the Bulls' No. 2 scorer behind LaVine. We'll add her, too, that LaVine continued to look smooth on offense. He had 29 points on 19 shots and had seven of the Bulls' 12 free throw attempts.

4. The backup point guard job is up for grabs

Cam Payne's leash is incredibly long. He's the best option for now once Kris Dunn eventually returns, but it's probably time for Ryan Arcidiacono and Tyler Ulis to get a look. Payne finished 0-for-4 with five assists and a turnover in 22 minutes. No one was expecting Payne to match Ben Simmons stat for stat (Simmons went for his third career-triple double in four games against the Bulls). But the ball routinely stopped when it got into Payne's hands, and he didn't seem to know where to go once he pushed in transition. His speed is a positive, but once he gets to his spot he struggled to make the right play. And he's a clear negative defensively. Arcidiacono and Ulis aren't exactly Gary Payton, but they deserve looks at some point in the near future. Arcidiacono had 8 points, 4 rebounds and 8 assists in 28 minutes. That came against Philly's second unit, but he was decidely better.

5. Jabari Parker will want a do-over

Friday feels like forever ago. For all Portis did well to close the preseason, it was gone on Thursday. Parker's final line is a bit misleading because of the points he scored when the game was well out of reach. The truth was Parker's shot selection early was awful, and his defense was a real liability. It was the "cons" side of his scouting report played out on the court. There's still hope he can improve, of course, and Hoiberg will need to find the right combinations to make him successful. But we can probably rule out him at small forward if he's having trouble staying in front of power forwards.

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

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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.”