Bulls

Shumpert hitting his stride in unexpected role for Cavs

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Shumpert hitting his stride in unexpected role for Cavs

When the Cavaliers traded for guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert on Jan. 5, the former was considered the headliner in the deal. Smith, two years removed from winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, was expected to thrive in Cleveland's up-tempo, 3-point heavy offense with the help of an elite distributor in James and a less stressful role behind Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

At the time of the trade, Shumpert was still recovering from a dislocated shoulder and wouldn't play until late January. By that time Smith had cemented himself as the starting shooting guard, leaving Shumpert to play the role of defensive specialist on the second unit.

But when Smith was suspended for the first two games of the Cavaliers' semifinals matchup against the Bulls and Kevin Love was ruled out of the series with a separated shoulder, the Cavaliers called upon Shumpert to expand his game on both ends of the floor. And as a hobbled Kyrie Irving limped to the finish line, it was suddenly Shumpert who took on the role of being both Cleveland's second scoring option and defensive stopper in the starting lineup.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

In a nutshell, Shumpert was magnificent. And his inspiring performance in the series culminated Thursday night in Game 6, when his second quarter run sparked the Cavaliers in what would become a 94-73 series-clinching victory.

With the Bulls hanging around midway through the second quarter, Shumpert drove from the left wing and was met with a clothesline by Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls rookie, who had also tussled briefly with LeBron James in Game 5, walked toward a fallen Shumpert and appeared to stare him down. The Cavaliers kept their composure, with tensions never escalating toward the level they had when Matthew Dellavedova and Taj Gibson scuffled 48 hours earlier.

Shumpert split two free throws after Mirotic was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul, then followed his freebie with a driving layup and 3-pointer over Mirotic in successive possessions that pushed the lead out to seven. That personal 6-0 run from Shumpert began a decisive 17-4 Cavaliers run that pushed their lead to 14 by halftime, and the Bulls never got within single digits the rest of the night.

"Everybody needs to be inspired by something," Shumpert said of Mirotic's hard foul. "And at that moment I took it as, instead of trying to win the fight, I wanted to win the game."

[MORE: Lifeless Bulls fall to Cavs in series-clincher]

It capped off an improbable series for Shumpert. Though part of the Cavs rotation all year, even a best-case scenario couldn't have pegged the swingman for his series averages: 12.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals in 36 minutes per game. He also turned the ball over once in 218 minutes. None of those numbers include the valiant effort he gave defending both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler at different points in the series, with the Cavaliers attempting to hide Irving's injury defensively while finding a way to keep him in for his offensive threat.

With Irving still hobbled by aggravated foot and knee injuries, Shumpert's tests will continue in the next round. Unless Irving can recuperate quickly, Shumpert likely will find himself guarding Atlanta's Jeff Teague or Washington's Bradley Beal the majority of the Eastern Conference Finals. He'll do so while still being expected to contribute on the offensive end in Love's absence, with more tangible numbers needed to advance to the NBA Finals.

[ALSO: LeBron lauds Dellavedova's, Thompson's effort in blowout win]

"My role was always big, just sometimes it didn’t show up in the stat sheet. With JR being suspended I got more looks at the basket and it showed up on the stat sheet, so people put more eyes on it," he said. "But these guys have always asked me to contribute different ways. It might not always show up on the stat sheet, but I’m there."

When Shumpert was dealt by New York, the Knicks were struggling to a league-worst 5-32 record. In a matter of one trade Shumpert suddenly found himself on a Cleveland team under the national microscope each time they took the floor. But with the spotlight on him as the fill-in for Smith and the defensive substitution for Irving, Shumpert played his best basketball.

When Smith was subbed out in the closing minutes of the Game 6 victory, he found Shumpert on the sidelines.

"I told him, 'Man, we came a long way.' From being where we were at with the guys we were with," he reflected, "to be switched over like this and the position we’re in now, it’s an unbelievable opportunity. We’ve got to make the most of it."

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”