Bulls beat the Wizards in a nail-biter, 115-114
Walt Lemon Jr. led the Bulls with 24pts and two go-ahead free throws to secure the win in Washington
Talk about cocky. That's your Chicago Bulls.
So first they decide Wednesday to defend a potential game winning basket by the Washington Wizards with four players. Well, not exactly, but it kind of worked out that way. Then with a chance to win the game, the Bulls drew up the final plays for a 26-year-old journeyman point guard passed over this season by every NBA team and just signed from the G-league.
And then Chicago native Walt Lemon Jr. in just his third NBA game with the Bulls after a microscopic look with New Orleans last season made a driving layup with 30.2 seconds left in the game, and then two pressure free throws with 1.8 seconds left for the margin in the Bulls 115-114 victory over the Washington Wizards.
"Nobody really expected me to be here and the fact the Bulls gave me the opportunity to play, let alone giving me a chance to win an NBA game, I can't ask for more than that." - Walt Lemon Jr.
Nobody beats the Wiz? Think again.
It didn't carry transcendent significance since the Bulls at 22-57 are basically locked into the fourth poorest record in the NBA this season and 12.5 percent odds for the first pick in the NBA draft. The teams with the three poorest records retain 14 percent chances for the first pick, which is expected to be Duke forward Zion Williamson.
Though it did matter for the feel good story of this late—and often lamentable—season, the fairy tale ending of the kid from Julian High School and Bradley U. via four European countries and three G-league teams called upon to break the Bulls five-game losing streak.
And then doing so.
"Nobody really expected me to be here and the fact the Bulls gave me the opportunity to play, let alone giving me a chance to win an NBA game, I can't ask for more than that," said Lemon. "I'm grateful and humbled the coach would put the ball in my hands at that time. It shows he has confidence in me and increases my confidence in myself as well. Me being in the NBA and coach giving me a chance to win the game, not once but twice. I'm just living the dream right now."
Lemon led the Bulls with 24 points, his second time leading the team in scoring in his three games. Windy City Bulls teammate JaKarr Sampson in just his second game with the team added 18 points and a team best nine rebounds after 22 points in his Bulls debut Monday in New York. Shaquille Harrison added 15 points and the three combined to carry the team in the fourth quarter with 22 of the Bulls 32 points. Two-way player Rawle Alkins added 11 points for his career high in his longest stint as a pro. Ryan Arcidiacono and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot also had 11 points each for seven Bulls scoring in double figures.
If the Bulls are about doubt, few are more so questioned than players like Sampson, Harrison, Alkins and Lemon, all generally rejected, released and disregarded. But sometimes all you need is a chance, and they are taking advantage despite the way the season is playing out.
"No one knows what I go through on a daily basis, what I've been through," said Lemon. "No one knows the countless hours I put in, the sleepless nights, the tears, all the hard work I put in, the sacrifice I make. So I don't really get into what other people say. If you doubt me, that's on you. I know I am not doubting myself because I know I've got what it takes to play up here."
Which is something of the statement the Bulls are trying to make even as their core players close out the season as spectators.
Better get to work; maybe there are guys ready to take your jobs.
"You know what's amazing? They play hard," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen when asked about the G-league players occupying the Bulls roster. "When you attack and play hard and embrace contact, good things happen for you. JaKarr is all over the place. He's driving it, he's rebounding it, he's tipping it in. He's got a great motor. I'm really thankful that we picked him up and I'm really thankful he's with us."
And so the Bulls play out this lost season, three games left with the Philadelphia 76ers in the United Center Saturday.
But there are tryouts and auditions galore, and it seems the Bulls have some candidates.
Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., the latter who received a nice video tribute from the Wizards in the first quarter, Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Lauri Markkanen were all out with injuries and health uncertainties. They make up the essential core of next season's team along with likely a first and a second round draft pick and perhaps a free agent or two. Which doesn't leave much roster room.
But another big skill in the NBA is health, which the Wizards' Bradley Beal demonstrated. He sat out the fourth quarter, which aided the Bulls cause in a game with 16 lead changes and 12 ties. The Wizards, 32-47, are out of the playoffs and going through a retrenchment. General manager Ernie Grunfeld was fired Tuesday and John Wall could be out injured all next season. But Beal continues to play. He hasn't missed a game and says he will finish the remaining games to play all 82.
"There should be some acknowledgement of that," said Wizards coach Scott Brooks.
A big part of being a star is being there, and the Bulls core players will have to demonstrate they have that ability. No one can avoid freak injuries, and even Michael Jordan missed almost an entire season injured his second year. But being a star for an ascending team requires attendance as well as talent.
Perhaps players like Lemon, Harrison and Sampson, among others, are demonstrating they can elbow their way past some of the more famous names with grit, grind and grizzle..
"We drew that up for him," Boylen said about the closing plays for Lemon. "Double screen in the middle of the floor and just attack. I thought he did a great job. Shaq did a great job on the fake handoff drive for the layup. That's what you have to do in the fourth quarter. I wanted to see what he (Lemon) could do. I wanted to see if he could handle the moment, handle the pressure. He was locked in, he ran what we were supposed to run, he executed how we were supposed to execute, he did what you are supposed to do in that situation, which is what point guards do in this league. That's why he's here, to be in that moment and for us to see if he can do it and for him to figure out if he can do it."
"You know what's amazing? They play hard," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen when asked about the G-league players occupying the Bulls roster. "When you attack and play hard and embrace contact, good things happen for you."
He just did it.
But it almost was an embarrassing moment not fully the fault of Cristiano Felicio, who was not on the court for what looked like the Wizards winning points with 12.7 seconds left.
The Wizards were coming out of a timeout with 14.5 seconds left trailing 113-112 after Lemon's twisting, driving score with 30.2 seconds left. Harrison, who was all over the floor again defensively with two blocks and two steals, had knocked away a Jordan McRae shot. But as Felicio as checking with the assistants if the Bulls had a foul to give, the officials put the ball in play with the other four Bulls players in position. Usually, they'll wait for all the players or if one team is short or call a delay of game.
"I've never seen that before," said Boylen. "I think they thought all 10 guys were out there and they weren't."
Boylen was actually across half court on the Wizards side of the floor shouting when the officials put the ball in play and the Wizards got a quick handoff to Chasson Randle, who was immediately fouled with the Bulls playing four on five.
Talk about the overconfidence of a 22-win team.
As that was occurring, Felicio came sprinting into the play past Boylen. Randle made both free throws with 12.7 seconds left. But then Lemon went barging into the paint again, absorbed the hit and got the tough foul call. His free throws saved an awkward situation, rattling in the second.
"We were late getting out of it, everybody ran out," related Boylen. "He asked one of our coaches if we had a foul to give. And they just started without him. Strange play. I don't know what to say about that. It was kind of weird. They usually don't ever start until everybody gets out there. And if they do want to start, they give you a delay before they start."
Felicio, who played well and had a highlight play with a powerful, fourth quarter running dunk on an Arcidiacono fast break, smiled awkwardly as reporters filed into the locker room and stood waiting for him to finish dressing. Dunn was sitting in the next locker and moved over.
"They don't talk to me all season; now they talk to me," Felicio said to Dunn with a sigh.
But he's always accommodating and gracious, and he shyly explained.
"I was on the bench seeing if we had a foul to give," Felicio said. "I didn't see the play started without me, so I just tried to run back. So that's what happened. I just thought about running back to try to play defense no matter what."
At least it didn't matter in the result with the Bulls having lost 10 of 12 coming into the game.
The Bulls got off to a good start behind Robin Lopez with 12 points in the game and trailed 28-26 after one quarter. It was 57-56 Washington at halftime with Alkins supplying some inside scoring.
"I was just thankful for the opportunity to be on the court," said Alkins. "Just kind of give it your all no matter how many minutes you get."
Then it was Lemon breaking out again after a tough shooting game Monday in New York. He's still a bit loose with the ball and had four turnovers trying to run through some unfamiliar plays. But he accounted for eight assists as an effective playmaker.
"There are going to be days like (New York)," said Lemon, who has an unusually high arc on his jump shot. "The shots will fall and sometimes they will not. The games I don't make shots I don't get discouraged with myself. I know I can make the shots and I know I put a lot of hard work in on my shots and I know I'm not losing confidence in myself. So I am going to keep shooting those same shots even when I make them or miss them.
"Adjusting to this level, the athleticism of the bigs, they are more athletic and longer and their timing is a lot better," Lemon acknowledged. "So I definitely watched a lot of film (since Monday) where I could make myself better. I think you saw today a couple of times I snapped it around the baseline and caught the big man off guard. You pump fake a couple of times. Even though it's just a couple of games, I am just learning from my mistakes from last game. I was able to get better today."
That's the mantra. Get better every day no matter who is playing.
It looked like it would get away from the Bulls, as so often occurs, to open the third quarter. Washington had a 10-2 start. But the Bulls recovered behind the scoring of Lemon and JaKarr Sampson and trailed just 87-83 entering the fourth. And then it was that back and forth fourth with the dunk and three-point play from Felicio, Harrison with a crucial three and seven straight points late and Lemon's close.
"Obviously they (Lemon and Sampson) have shown a little bit of that chemistry," said Lopez. "They both have been aggressive, which is what I love. They both have been smart out there. That was a big play for (Lemon). JaKarr made big plays, Rawle made big plays. We trusted a lot of guys and they came through for us."
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