Bulls

Weight from previous years came crashing down in one night for Bulls

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Weight from previous years came crashing down in one night for Bulls

LeBron James walked happily through the back hallways of the United Center on the way to his session with the media, chanting the name of an unlikely hero who took center stage on the most unlikely of stages.

Fortysomething feet behind James and Matthew Dellavedova was Joakim Noah, walking slowly toward the exit before exchanging actual pleasantries with Kendrick Perkins and Kyrie Irving, telling Irving to take care of his ailing body this postseason as the Cleveland Cavaliers moved onto the Eastern Conference Finals, the first team to clinch an appearance.

Two hours earlier, Noah uttered a four-letter word to himself after teammate Tony Snell fouled J.R. Smith while shooting a 3-pointer in the first half.

It wasn’t “funk”, although it could’ve described the game-long lull the Bulls were in, as their predictable offensive famine led to frustration then lastly, finality as the United Center faithful began leaving in droves when the Bulls couldn’t muster an answer against a barely-hanging on Cavaliers team in the third quarter.

The wide spread that will be etched in the minds of Bulls fans was nothing more than a confirmation of what became evident four days ago.

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

There comes a point in every critical playoff series where it becomes clear to everyone, at least the participants, as to whom the better team is. That moment became apparent in Game 4, when the Bulls couldn’t put the struggling Cavaliers away early in the fourth quarter.

The series was lost long before James’ fadeaway jumper at the buzzer and his exemplary Game 5 performance only hammered home the fact in case there were a few who still didn’t believe.

By the time the emotion wore off late in the first quarter Thursday, the Bulls were already spent, having given the best they could muster. And the Cavaliers could sense a team finally on empty, finally with no more snap in their punches after having an endless supply for so long.

It wasn’t desperation or even panic for the Bulls. That moment for Noah was less about Snell and more about acceptance and submission, not only about the series but this era—one that seems headed for a change in direction on the sidelines, and plenty of tacit finger-pointing between now and October.

In the days ahead, there will be conversations about the Bulls’ effort in the second half, where they appeared to be in quicksand and unable or unwilling to rise up in the effort to put together a winning performance.

In the end, the task was too difficult for a team that took too many punches, both physical and psychological, finally deciding “no mas” when the Cavs appeared to figure them out and weren’t backing down.

“I like the fight in our guys. It was an up and down year, but there was no quit,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whose future is first on the docket of speculation. “They hung tough and found a way to win games. We wanted to give it our best shot and it did not work out for us.”

Perhaps Noah could leave the building breathing a sigh of relief for the first time in a long time, as the Cavaliers mercifully put the Bulls out of their misery in an underwhelming blowout to end the Bulls’ champagne hopes.

[RELATED: LeBron lauds Delly's, Thompson's efforts in Cavs' Game 6 win]

The relief could likely come from the definitiveness in which the Cavaliers dismissed the Bulls, doing it in a manner that used to be so Bulls-like and also extinguishing the long-held beliefs of the past few years that stated if they were fully healthy, they could take down whichever team James was playing on.

The evidence was startling and more importantly for the tortured of heart, non-negotiable. It was the Cavaliers who were short-handed, prompting Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy to say the most dangerous animal was a wounded animal—and nobody wearing white jerseys took heed to the warning.

Usually it’s the Bulls who have to deal with such adversity, relying on no-names to boost them to unpredictable finishes, but nobody expected Dellavedova, James Jones or J.R. Smith to be the ones to take the Bulls out with such ease.

But instead of a charging Cavaliers team that looked too strong, the weight of expectations, of unfulfilled promise likely burdened the Bulls after Game 5—their last, best shot, that again, came up short.

To pick themselves off the mat appears so easy in theory, evidenced by the San Antonio Spurs bouncing back from a debilitating loss in the NBA Finals in 2013 to romping past the opponent that dished out the heartbreak 12 months later.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

But the Spurs were without controversy and possessing the muscle memory from championship wins to know what it was going to take to get back—something these Bulls haven’t experienced.

It was an outcome Bulls fans prayed for, to finally overcome the boogeyman with twenty-three emblazoned across his chest—but all they know is heartbreak and heartache, especially from that man.

“They played better than us and they won the series,” Pau Gasol said. “They did a much better job than we did. They were in a close-out situation which gives you extra confidence and a burst. They decided to move on.”

For once, though, they can go into an offseason not complaining about the Big Bad Boogeyman from Cleveland (or Miami), or pondering how they’d fare if Lady Luck were on their side.

But what do you do when there’s no more “what if”?

You have to deal with reality—and that is much more difficult to fathom than fantasy.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

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.”