Bulls

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Brad Stevens opted for a smaller lineup in Game 3 against the Bulls, hoping his Celtics could stretch the floor to open up an offense that struggled with spacing in Games 1 and 2 losses.

The plan worked, as the Celtics hit 17 3-pointers and were able to switch with ease defensively. But it was the smallest player in that lineup who ultimately made the biggest difference. Isaiah Thomas didn't post gaudy numbers, and the King of the Fourth scored just two points in the final period.

Instead the Celtics leader, still in mourning, was masterful in a game his team needed already trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. Thomas' 16 points were the fewest he had scored all season playing normal minutes, and he made just 7 of 18 attempts from the field. But he also handed out nine assists, his highest total since late January, controlling the Celtics offense that looked far more like itself than it had in the first two games, scoring 104 points on 48 percent shooting in a blowout victory Friday night in Chicago.

"Isaiah is such a tough guard. Once he gets into the teeth of the defense, when he kicks it out and we're making the next pass and the next pass and everyone's touching the ball, that's fun basketball," said Avery Bradley, who added 15 points and a career-high seven assists. "Everyone’s playing with confidence, everyone understands they need to take the shots that's coming their way, and it's fun basketball."

With Rajon Rondo sidelined, Thomas took advantage of a Bulls defense that continued to pressure him whenever he received the ball. Whereas in the first two games Thomas looked rushed and forced a handful of shots – he went 6-for-15 in Game 2 – Thomas was patient in finding open shooters and cutters off those double-teams. He didn't pass more often; he simply made better passes. His teammates mirrored his efficient play, too. In addition to his nine assists, Thomas had three secondary assists as well.

With Stevens opting to play small with four players on the perimeter, it allowed Al Horford more room to operate inside. That meant pick-and-roll action with Thomas, and the pair sliced up a Bulls defense that had no answer in Robin Lopez or help defense because of the floor spacing. During the Celtics' decisive 20-7 scoring run in the third quarter, Thomas assisted on all four Horford baskets, three of which came at the rim.

"I though Isaiah was great," said Horford, who received assists from Thomas on six of his eight field goals. "I feel like he really was reading the defense, just making the simple play and knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass."

Thomas' shot was off for a second straight game – he was 3-for-10 in the first half despite four assists – and the constant double-teams and hedging didn't allow the league's second leading scorer much room to work.

But his two biggest shots came during that third-quarter run when Thomas hustled to catch the Bulls defense out of order following missed shots. He buried a triple over Jerian Grant on the right wing and on the next possession connected from the top of the key to push the Celtics' lead to nine. Later in the quarter a Thomas hesitation layup past Dwyane Wade put the Celtics up by double-digits for the remainder of the game.

"We put our offense in Isaiah's hands but he has to make the right play, whether it be driving and kick, scoring opportunity," Crowder said. "We put it all in his hands to make a play and he did a great job tonight."

That Thomas even took the floor Friday night was impressive in its own right. The All-Star point guard had spent the previous two days in Tacoma, Washington, with his family mourning the loss of his 22-year-old sister, killed in a car accident last Saturday morning.

Thomas has understandably opted not to speak with media since the series began Sunday evening. The Celtics released a statement on Wednesday from Thomas in which he called it "without question the hardest week of my life." Stevens said that Thomas was feeling better after returning to the team Thursday night before Game 3, and that both Thomas and the team were happy he traveled home during the team's off-days.

"For me it's all about, we have to maintain the perspective that there's gonna be some real ups and downs, and that’s just part of it," Stevens said. "And we're here to support him and we're gonna do our jobs and coach and play basketball, but we understand that there is a bigger picture and we are here as his support network that's in Boston. There's going to be times, as you all know, as you go on certainly time provides some healing, but you're always going to have days.”

No one can be sure how Thomas is feeling, save for those closest to him. But for one night in Chicago, the 5-foot-9 point guard stood tall and turned in a performance that his team needed. How the series plays out from this point – the Celtics still need to win Game 4 on Sunday to avoid a 3-1 hole – will be dictated largely on how Thomas plays.

He looked like a new player in Game 3 - Crowder added that Thomas' trip home acted as a "fresh start" - and more like the MVP candidate who, if he continues this play, can lead the top-seeded Celtics back from the hole they put themselves in.

Terry Rozier didn’t know Michael Jordan, Bulls 3-peated twice until ‘Last Dance’

Terry Rozier didn’t know Michael Jordan, Bulls 3-peated twice until ‘Last Dance’

It’s as shocking as it is true.

Terry Rozier, 26 years old and an established NBA player employed by the Charlotte Hornets, did not know that Michael Jordan and the Bulls three-peated twice in the 1990s until viewing “The Last Dance.”

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

He confessed as much to Jonathan Abrams of Bleacher Report:

"Just actually seeing this documentary, I learned so much," Rozier told Abrams. "I didn't even know that they (the Bulls) won three straight [championships two times]. I'm just being honest... To do things like that in this league, you have to be super special.”

 

Fact check for all of the above: true. And while undeniably humorous to hear Rozier admit this, the larger piece offers a heartwarming testament to Jordan’s influence from the perspective of Rozier, backcourt-mate Devonte’ Graham, Cody Zeller and other members of the team the Bulls’ great now owns. It's an engaging, worthwhile read.

Rozier even said he could have foreseen himself fighting MJ if, in another life, they somehow found themselves on the same team. “The Steve Kerr route,” as he puts it.

The feature also touches on Jordan and Jordan Brand’s $100 million commitment to social justice causes.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BULLS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.

Bulls offseason watch: Key dates for 2020 NBA Draft, Free Agency

Bulls offseason watch: Key dates for 2020 NBA Draft, Free Agency

Tuesday begins the staggered, three-day voyage of 21 NBA teams to Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla. for the 2019-20 season restart (the Raptors have already arrived).

For the Bulls, and Bulls fans, that’s not of direct consequence. Excluded from the bubble, supporters and observers will be limited to loose Bulls ties — enter: Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler — and draft lottery dreaming as the NBA’s best battle for the 2019-20 crown in Orlando.

But that doesn’t mean the next five months, which will comprise an unprecedented offseason in the league’s history, don’t hold significance for the Bulls. A likely third consecutive top-10 draft choice is on the way for the team, as are key contractual deadlines for players currently on the roster and a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

There remains much unknown about the 2020 NBA offseason — chiefly, from the Bulls’ perspective, the salary cap, luxury tax line and status of the predraft process, the last of which has been halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also now in play is the matter of a possible eight-team bubble being constructed in Chicago for the squads not joining the league in Orlando, though there are hurdles galore on that front.

What we do have is a framework of a reported schedule to track through the remainder of the summer and ensuing autumn. Here are some key dates for Bulls fans to watch for the time being (all of which are, of course, subject to change given the potentially fluid nature of the league’s calendar amid the pandemic):

NBA Draft

Aug. 17: Early entry deadline for prospects

The last day for underclassmen not automatically eligible to declare for the NBA draft to state their intentions. Moved back from its original date of April 26, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Scott Phillips has you covered tracking who’s already declared or testing the waters.

Aug. 25: Draft Lottery

Typically, the early entry deadline and draft lottery would be nearly two months apart, with the combine sandwiched in between. But with the pandemic moving predraft interviews to Zoom, and live, remote workouts currently prohibited, it appears the league will squeeze both into an eight-day span, also per Wojnarowski.

The Bulls have selected No. 7 three years in a row, using those picks to draft core pieces in Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White. And even as the world erupts into chaos around them, they slot seventh in the lottery ranks once again this season. 

But with the NBA smoothing its lottery odds before the 2019 draft, the Bulls will have a modicum higher of a chance of leaping. They enter the lottery with a 7.5% chance of nabbing the No. 1 pick, 32% shot at vaulting into the top four and 19.7% odds of staying locked at No. 7. They also own mathematical chances at No. 8 (34.1%), No. 9 (12.9%), No. 10 (1.3%) and even 11 (0.03%).

Last nugget of note: This year’s lottery intentionally falls 11 days after the conclusion of the NBA’s eight-game seeding round in Orlando; while the eight teams left out of the bubble are locked into their current slots, the final six teams in the 14-team lottery will be populated by those who fall short of the playoffs. Right now, those six are the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. If any of them vault into the postseason during the seeding games and play-in round, they’ll flip places with the team they usurp outside of the lottery. Both the lottery order, and the order of selections 15 - 30 will be determined by team record from when the league suspended play on March 11. 

Oct. 6: Early withdrawal deadline for prospects

Any not automatically eligible prospects that declared for the draft on or before Aug. 17 will have the opportunity to rescind that declaration (and maintain NCAA eligibility) on or before Oct. 6, per Wojnarowski.

Oct. 16: 2020 NBA Draft

The draft this year will fall three days after a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals (Oct. 13), according to Wojnarowski. Broadcast, location and logistical specifics appear to be undetermined as of yet.

RELATED: 2020 NBA Mock Draft 6.0

Option/Offer Deadlines and Extension Eligibilities

From there, a few key decision days for players already on the Bulls’ roster loom. First and certainly not least...

Oct. 17: Otto Porter Jr.’s player option deadline

As reported by ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Otto Porter Jr. will have until Oct. 17 to decide whether or not to exercise his roughly $28.5 million player option for the 2020-21 season. His opting in appears all but a certainty (especially coming off an injury-riddled season in which he appeared in just 14 games, and amid a potentially tumultuous cap environment), and will essentially seal the Bulls’ fate as an over-the-cap team this offseason. 

Heaping that $28.5 million figure onto the Bulls’ books would bring the team’s guaranteed salaries for the 2020-21 season to $106,027,707 (numbers via Spotrac) before addressing restricted free agents or contracts for any draftees. The latest reputable pre-pandemic cap projection, from Wojnarowski, was $115 million, which could now be subject to change.

Oct. 17: Qualifying offer deadline

Also on Oct. 17 is the last day for teams to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents, per Marks. The Bulls have three: Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and Shaq Harrison. Full breakdown on the considerations at play for each here.

Oct. 18: Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Porter and Cristiano Felicio become extension eligible

The next day, per Marks, three Bulls starters become extension eligible — Markkanen on a rookie-scale basis, while LaVine and Porter are of the veteran designation.

Markkanen’s case is among the more curious in the league. His third season saw marked regression from his second in usage, opportunity and production, but given his skillset and considerable potential, he still represents a possible building block for the Bulls moving forward. A year ago — assuming expected development — we might have thought we’d be pondering a max for Markkanen at this point. Now, with a new front office regime in place, his market value is anyone’s guess. Maybe Arturas Karnisovas and Markkanen’s representation find an amenable compromise before the start of the 2020-21 season. But perhaps just as likely is Karnisovas wanting to see more from him, and Markkanen taking the opportunity to bet on himself making a leap in a contract year and earning some extra dough, as Jimmy Butler did five years ago.

RELATED: Bulls mailbag: Which free agents fit? Lauri Markkanen extension talks?

LaVine has two years and $39 million remaining on a contract he has become one of the more team-friendly in the league given his production since returning full-time from his ACL tear. Porter and Felicio’s deals enter their final years in 2020-21. Frankly, it’d be surprising to see any of them consummate extensions before Karnisovas and new general manager Marc Eversley get a chance to see the Bulls up close and in action.

Free Agency

Oct. 18: Free Agency opens

According to Wojnarowski, free agency is expected open Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. ET, with the moratorium period running from Oct. 19 - 23, and lifting on Oct. 24.

As mentioned, the Bulls will likely be out of the running for any appreciable cap space when that window opens. But they will have their (as of now) non-taxpayer mid-level exception to work with — possible targets for which you can peruse in K.C. Johnson’s latest mailbag.

And for what it’s worth, that luxury tax line could be worth monitoring. In a tweet Monday, Marks mentioned a previous projection of $139 million for next season’s luxury tax. That projection would have to plunge pretty far for the Bulls to need sweating it out, but in the current climate, who knows what could be on the table? If the Bulls somehow found themselves over that line, the difference in last seasons non-taxpayer and taxpayer MLE was about $3.5 million (~$9.2 million to $5.7 million).

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BULLS TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.