Bulls

Once again, LeBron James is all alone but it could be enough

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Once again, LeBron James is all alone but it could be enough

Fitting that David Blatt is exposing himself as a less-than-stellar option for an NBA coach, leaving assistants to prevent him from calling timeouts he didn’t have or drawing up plays that has the best player as an inbounds pass.

It’s fitting LeBron James is having to trudge through the Eastern Conference playoffs with one co-star severely hobbled and another out for the entire run with a bad shoulder.

“It’s huge. We didn’t have any timeouts and we didn’t want to get a T,” James said. “That’s why we’re a unit, that’s why we’re a team. Players make mistakes and coaches make mistakes. And we have to cover for one another. (Assistant coach Tyronn) Lue did that by covering for Blatt and I just tried to cover for my guys on the floor.”

Because for all his work to orchestrate which teammates would join him in his return to Cleveland and which guys would be jettisoned out, James again finds himself in a similar position — staring down the barrel of a team with multiple weapons, a re-emerging star of its own and a player determined to make every step for him as grimy and difficult as possible — alone.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

That feeling where the life leaves your body — where muscles turn to mush, where fans’ screams of joy turn to open-mouthed gasps of anguish? James transferred those emotions to the Bulls players and their fans with the stroke of one fadeaway jumper, a game-winner that probably was more debilitating to the Bulls than Friday’s Derrick Rose shot energized the city and franchise.

“I wanted to get a good look. I faked like I wanted to go for the lob and bounced back to the left corner and took a shot I was comfortable taking,” James said. “It’s a huge win for our group, it means more than just a win for our young group. For us to come into a hostile environment was huge.”

If not for the officials review and extra time to draw a play James made sure to scrap from the jump, the player-coach was blunt and truthful about what would’ve happened anyways.

“We would’ve been prepared. I would’ve made sure our guys were in the right position to get a good look,” James said. “In that situation I can get loose and get a good look no matter who’s on me.”

“To be honest the play that was drawn up, I scratched and told coach just give me the ball. And we’re either gonna go into overtime or I’m gonna win it for us.  It’s that simple.”

[MORE: LeBron's own buzzer beater sends series to 2-2 tie]

In the words of in-game performer and Chicago native Kanye West, “no one man should have all that power.”

Of course, James’ talent is unmatched, but the task of trying to get through the East to the Finals for a fifth straight time is starting to wear on him. Larry Bird’s body broke down. Magic Johnson couldn’t do it. Michael Jordan retired (twice) before his body and spirit had a chance to betray him.

James, looking at the supporting cast in Miami compared to what he could put together as de-facto general manager back in Cleveland, made the calculated decision to head back north, seeing a budding all-star in Kyrie Irving, a No. 1 pick in Andrew Wiggins who could be used as leverage, and plenty other pieces that could be used on the floor or as trade bait as opposed to an aging core in Miami led by his buddy Dwyane Wade.

With Irving’s effectiveness a serious question mark and James being unaware if Irving could muster Wade-like performances while playing through pain, he’s right back to where he started—only this time he’s being forced to depend on the likes of the combustible J.R. Smith, who actually helped save James in the fourth quarter with 11 points.

While James is finding out the toughness his teammates possess, an inexperienced team is learning and growing on the job, quite rapidly.

[RELATED: Cavaliers stand behind ailing Kyrie Irving]

“The kid is a warrior,” said James of Irving. “What he’s gone through right now nobody can relate. He’s played 48 minutes on a sore foot the last two games. Just his presence on the floor, no matter if he’s playing on one foot, you have to account for him because he can make shots. It goes a long way, it’s not just about basketball what this kid is doing for our team right now. He’s giving us everything he’s got and that’s all we can ask for.”

The James explosion hasn’t happened, which should give Bulls that same sinking feeling that was in the pit of their stomachs leaving Game 4.  With Jimmy Butler hounding him, he’s shooting just 37.7 percent from the field, which would qualify as his lowest since the 2007 NBA Finals, a four-game sweep from the San Antonio Spurs and the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics, a team whose defense was engineered by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

“If I get one game where we shoot 50 percent, we might be able to do some things,” James said. “For seven straight years I’e raised it and I take that seriously. I also know that some challenges present different ways of winning. I know my point guard is hobbled and other all-star is out for the season. Shot attempts, efficiency, I want to be efficient but it’s not happening in this series now. I want to do the other things.”

He’s going to the glass, with 11.2 rebounds, and dishing it out to the tune nine assists per game.  So much of the Cavaliers’ fortunes rely in his capable hands and despite his turnovers, offensive fouls and moments where he looks more human than bionic—he’s still the most impactful player in this series.

And if you didn’t, you probably had your mouth wide open, gasping at that fadeaway, because even all alone, you’d still better fear him.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.