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.

Kevin Garnett is in the Hall of Fame, and I knew it before he was in the NBA

Kevin Garnett is in the Hall of Fame, and I knew it before he was in the NBA

I knew Kevin Garnett was going to be a Hall of Famer before most of the world had ever heard of him. That’s right. I knew it. Like, truly knew it. He arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1994 as a skinny, incredibly gifted athletically, 6-foot-11 kid.
 
Sure, college basketball coaches and some die-hard fans knew his name because he was highly ranked in the high school class of 1995 but the average fan would not know who he was until he exploded onto the scene as a senior at Farragut HS on the west side of Chicago that next winter.
 
In fact, the notion of players jumping directly from high school to the NBA was still not widely accepted and most NBA teams had no intention of drafting a 17- or 18-year-old player at or near the top of the NBA draft.
 
In June of 1994 I was sitting at home in Deerfield, IL with my first wife and our newly born son Brett who was just a month or so old at the time. I was running my scouting service for college and professional coaches, broadcasting 30-40 college basketball games on television each season and hosting overnights on the radio on sports radio station WMVP in Chicago. One of my dearest friends in my life is Ron Eskridge who has been a fixture on the Chicago high school basketball scene for the past 50 years. He and I met when I was a college basketball assistant coach at Northern Illinois University from 1982-86 and he was one of the main reasons I was able to assimilate myself into the Chicago high school basketball world.
 
One Saturday afternoon in June of that year, my phone rang and it was Eskridge. “Hey Dave are you home? I’m up here in your neighborhood with a couple of our guys for a spring league tournament. Can we stop by for a while and grab a sandwich?” Of course, I replied and 15 minutes later my doorbell rang. One player I knew because he had been a camper at my annual summer basketball camp for the top prep players in Illinois as well as being one of the best guards in the country. His name was Ronnie Fields and he was the Pied Piper of Chicago basketball. Fans flocked to see him wherever he was playing, and other players wanted to play with him. He had a 45” vertical jump and was one of the most exciting players in Chicago high school history.
 
The other young man was much taller and extremely gregarious. I knew who he was because I had seen him at the previous summer’s Nike All-American Camp held in Indianapolis. It was at that camp that I watched him play in an all-star game against the great Allen Iverson and many other future college stars. However, I had never interacted with him before that day.

I also had no idea why he was in Chicago when he lived in Mauldin, SC.
 
I invited the three of them in and offered them lunch. As we sat and talked my one-month old son Brett would not stop crying. I mean He. Would. Not. Stop. Crying. And what I witnessed next was nothing short of amazing. This 6-11 giant who was eating a sandwich on the couch in my family room asked to hold my crying son. “No thanks, Kevin. He has been crying a lot. You don’t need to deal with this. I appreciate it though,” I told him.
 
“Just let me hold him Kap. Kids love me” he chuckled. So, I handed Brett over. Within seconds of being placed in Garnett’s arms he stopped crying. He stared at this new face that he had never met before.
 
I watched in amazement as Garnett sat in my family room eating a sandwich in one hand and comforting and holding my son in the other. Brett was calm and happy. It was incredible. I wish I had taken a picture of that moment but we didn’t have iPhones back then. I do have that memory and that is priceless to me.
 
During lunch the four of us talked basketball and life and we laughed and we debated the game. Then, we went outside to shoot hoops in the park outside my townhouse. Eskridge and I against Fields and Garnett. Of course, we got destroyed but that wasn’t the most unbelievable thing that I witnessed while we played.
 
After a few minutes several young kids from the neighborhood started congregating around the court. Why were they there? They couldn’t possibly know who any of us were, could they? There was no internet, no social media and high school basketball games were not being shown on TV very often. Yet, these kids all knew who Garnett and Fields were. They stayed for as long as we played and they cheered every basket the two high school stars made. It was an incredible sight to see.
 
That day was my introduction to Kevin Garnett and that day they let me in on a big secret. Kevin was thinking of transferring from South Carolina to Chicago. He wanted to team up with Fields and the rest of the talented Farragut team and play in the ultra-competitive Red-West section of the Chicago Public League. It wasn’t a done deal but it was certainly a real possibility. And with no social media there was no place for rampant speculation. It stayed a secret until it became a reality that August.
 
With Garnett now in Chicago, Farragut basketball games became a must-see attraction. With Fields, Garnett and the late Michael Wright (who played at Arizona and in the NBA) on the roster the Admirals were almost unbeatable.
 
And as the season went on, I saw more and more of their games and I was around Garnett and Co. a lot. There was something about this young man that was incredibly special. I have scouted hundreds of players in my career and I can count on one hand those that had the special quality that I like to call, “It”. The “It” factor is an incredibly unique quality that screams more than just talent. It announces itself with a presence that you know is greatness in more ways than in sheer statistics.
 
Garnett was a tremendous physical talent but he was so much more than that on and off of the court. The way he carried himself and the way he led was special. He did not suffer fools lightly and he demanded that his teammates compete as hard as he did.
 
But, NBA coaches and executives were not convinced that high school players could make the jump to the NBA. In fact, my former boss when I was scouting for the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) did not want to go see Garnett when I broached the idea with him in January of 1995.
 
The late Gary Wortman was a highly regarded scout with the Atlanta Hawks in 1995 after he had left the Sonics. He was coming to Chicago to see a college game one evening and called me to ask me to have dinner with him before the evening game. I volunteered to pick him up at the airport and I told him, “Forget dinner. I’m taking you to see another game that tips off at 3:15 this afternoon. You won’t believe how good this kid is. Then we can go to the college game.”
 
“What kind of a game starts at 3:15 on a weekday? It better not be a high school game because I’m not scouting high school kids when we are going to be picking in the Top 20 of the draft,” he growled.
 
If you’ve never seen an NBA scout drool, it is a sight worth a few laughs. “What the….That kid is incredible. I can’t believe this. He can play in our league right now. He will never be there when we pick.” And he was right. Garnett went to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick. The Hawks ended up choosing 16th in that year’s draft and Wortman told me the day before that draft: “Whoever doesn’t take him at the very top of the draft will end up regretting it for the rest of their career.”

The Timberwolves have no regrets.
 
In February of 1995 I received a call from the producer of the Oprah Winfrey Show which filmed in Chicago. They were doing a show on child prodigies and wanted to know if I was interested in appearing.  
 
“We are wondering if you have ever seen a young basketball player that you believe will be in the Hall of Fame someday? Someone you saw at a young age that you are confident he will be a superstar?”
 
I had seen a lot of great players as a college coach for four years and as an NBA scout for two different franchises over four years, but I hadn’t seen many young kids that I truly believed were going to be in the Hall of Fame.
 
Except one name was stuck in my mind. Kevin Garnett.
 
I gave that name to Oprah’s producer. “We would like to have you on the show and Oprah will ask you about him and some other players that you have seen, okay?” Of course it was okay. The Oprah Winfrey Show was huge. And sure enough, in March of 1995 I sat in the Green Room of the world famous Oprah Winfrey Show ready to talk basketball with one of the best talk show hosts of all time.
 
As I sat there waiting my turn to have the makeup artist work her magic a young man walked up to me and said “Hi, what do you do?” I told him I scout famous athletes. I then proceeded to ask him what got him selected to be on this great show. “I’m a singer from Atlanta, Georgia. My name is Usher Raymond.”
 
I am not very astute when it comes to music and pop culture but that name I knew. That kid was a star! Then in walked a father with his daughter. Richard and Venus Williams. Then an actress from a movie I had seen walks in. Katherine Heigl of Under Siege 2 – Dark Territory. Man, this was a star studded show! What was I doing here?
 
Later in the show, they call my name and they tell me I am up in the next segment. I walk out and I am on set with Oprah and a casting agent from a Hollywood talent agency. We start to discuss kids who are stars at a young age and then the question that I was waiting for. “Have you ever seen a player at a young age that you believe could be a star?”
 
I spoke from the heart about my respect for Garnett, his game and the type pf young man that I believed he was. He and another area high school basketball star, Joliet’s Gary Bell were in the audience. I had no idea they were there!
 
Then, she says to me, “And, you made a black man blush which is hard to do!”
 
Oprah then proceeds to ask Kevin what he thought of my comments and he says, "I just want to say thank you. I really don’t think ahead, I just think day by day. That’s the best way to do it. I just want to be successful in life. That’s all. Yes, I want to go to the NBA. That’s every kid’s dream.”
 
Garnett and Fields then proceeded to finish off the 1994-95 season with a trip to the Illinois High School Elite Eight championships where they lost in the quarterfinals to an extremely talented Thornton HS team that had future NFL players Napoleon Harris, Antwan Randle-El and Tai Streets plus future NBA player Melvin Ely on their roster. The loss was shocking to many but it has to go down in Illinois high school history as one of the most talented matchups in the state’s storied basketball annals.
 
With the season now over rumors began to swirl on where Garnett would attend college. But, those close to Garnett including Eskridge, Fields and Farragut head coach William “Wolf” Nelson kept telling me they believed he was going to head directly to the NBA.

Bulls front office executive Doug Collins was the head coach of the Detroit Pistons at that time and I told him to trade their 18th and 19th picks in that year’s draft to move up into the Top 5 for Garnett if they had the chance.

“A high school kid that high? C’mon Kap, I’m sure he’s talented but in the top 5?” Collins told me.
 
A couple of weeks before the 1995 NBA Draft, Garnett held a private workout for NBA coaches, general managers and scouts at an inner-city gym. He was simply incredible. I talked to Collins that day and he said, “Wow, that kid is one of the best prospects I have ever seen. There is no way we can get him even if we offered both of our picks. He is going in the top 5 for sure.”
 
Now here we are 26 years after I first met Garnett and he is going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was evident from the first time I saw him play and it was cemented when I had the opportunity to interact with him. Garnett remains the best high school player I have ever seen and he is deserving of having his name etched alongside all of the game’s very best.

I may not have that picture of Kevin and my son from June of 1994, but I have incredible memories and those will stay with me forever. Congratulations, Kevin. You deserve this incredible honor. We were all lucky to have been able to watch you play. I was even luckier to have had a front row seat for that magical season in 1994-95 when you exploded on the basketball world. I don’t need a camera to remember it.

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Bulls observations: How the Bulls' defense corralled Shaq and broke the Magic

Bulls observations: How the Bulls' defense corralled Shaq and broke the Magic

My word, the Magic are toast. The Bulls went up 3-0 in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals with a smothering 86-67 win in Orlando. Observations:

Some wonky free throw shooting

Considering the Bulls’ status as perhaps the greatest team of all time, and the Orlando Magic’s reputation as supremely talented and formidable in their own right, the putrid free throw shooting in this one was a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around.

The Bulls finished the night 18-for-31 from the charity stripe, the Magic 10-for-24 (though most of that can be chalked up to Shaquille O’Neal’s 1-for-9 outing). And on technical free throws, the two teams combined to go 0-for-5. 

 

At one point, Michael Jordan was captured on the Bulls’ bench attributing a missed technical to sweat in his eyes (come on, now). NBC color commentator Matt Goukas offered the arduous brand of defense played by both sides to their dead legs at the line.

Whatever the case, it was weird. Even Jordan wasn’t immune; he started the night 2-for-6 on free throws and finished 6-for-11. 

Corralling Shaq

The Bulls did an outrageous job on O’Neal tonight. In the first half, he logged just eight points on miserable 4-for-11 shooting. His line for the night: 17 points, 8-for-19 from the field and five turnovers.

The beauty is there isn’t one person to credit for the Bulls’ impressive handling of O’Neal — perhaps the single most physically imposing player in the league at the time. The rotating cast of bigs (Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman, specifically) were more than serviceable making him work in single coverage. And from a scheming perspective, the double-teams the Bulls did utilize were perfectly timed and deployed. They didn’t come every possession, and when they did, they didn’t always come from the same person, from the same direction or at the same time.

That was the beauty of this team: Virtually any player in the regular rotation — from Jordan to Pippen to Harper to Kukoc — could be trusted to time their attack deftly and bother O’Neal’s dribbling with active hands and physicality. The result was O’Neal frequently fumbling the rock while executing routine back-downs, bricking bunnies and generally appearing uncomfortable — at times, even frustrated.

When it was winning time, O’Neal and Penny Hardaway (who, it should be noted, has had some crazy smooth moments in this series) combined for five points. Greatest defense of all time. 

When the Bulls flip the switch…

In that vein… Man. When this Bulls team wants to break you, they break you.

The Magic hung around for a while in this one, and give them credit for that. In the third, they shaved a double-digit deficit to just three points, and appeared to be on pace to give the Bulls a real test in the first game of this series on Orlando’s home court. All amid pedestrian performances from their two stars — even through three, O’Neal and Hardaway had just 15 points each. 

Then, that fourth quarter happened. I mentioned O’Neal and Hardaway’s foibles in that period. As a team, the Magic mustered just 10 points in the final frame, 29 in the second half and 67 for the game. And even listing that 10-point fourth quarter belies the fact that five of those points came in the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation, and they began the period shooting 1-for-13.

This Magic team had two of the most electrifying players in the league at the time and was fresh off a Finals berth. Yes, they were banged up (Horace Grant’s series ended in Game 1 and Nick Anderson limped off the floor in the fourth), but when the Bulls lock in, they just looked so helpless. Most teams did, I’m beginning to see.

This stat says it all:

 

The Magic entered the fourth trailing 63-57. They ended losers by a score of 86-67. 90s basketball, baby.

Some signature nights

Scottie Pippen’s night warrants extended mention and celebration. In the box score, he shot 11-for-14 (after starting 9-for-10) to lead the game in scoring with 27 points. He also — typically — added seven assists, six rebounds and two blocks for good measure.

One of those blocks came on a preposterous chasedown midway through the second quarter. Even more preposterous was Pippen, seemingly in one fluid motion, stripping the ball out of a Magic player’s arms as he descended from making the block in the first place. His jumper was on, his ballhandling and fastbreak work as fluid as ever. He’s awesome. 

And in addition to Rodman grinding down O’Neal, he had a signature night all-around, as well. He finished with nine points, 16 rebounds (moving his averages for the series to 12.3 points and 16.3 rebounds) and four fouls — one of them a technical in the first quarter and one a tone-setting personal on Shaq in the fourth.

These guys are beaten. The Bulls seal the sweep Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. Jordan left this one early and banged up, but we have a feeling he’ll bounce back nicely.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.