Bulls fall to Cavaliers, 114-109

The Bulls came close to pulling off one of the most unlikely upsets of the NBA season, barely losing 114-109 to the Cleveland Cavaliers after trailing by 19 points in the first half and being tied twice in the last five minutes of the game.

LeBron James with 33 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists proved too much in the end, though the Bulls relentless play and comebacks forced the Cavs to keep James in the game for 40 minutes.

The Bulls were led and carried by a career game from Denzel Valentine with a career high 34 points on a career best eight of 11 three pointers. Valentine also had seven rebounds and six assists in a brilliant all round effort. The Bulls had one of their most active games in weeks with 30 assists on 41 baskets and a fast break edge in points. It was a stunning departure from the trend of isolation play in recent games.

Cameron Payne was a big part of that with 13 points and 10 assists. Cristiano Felicio had 10 points and 10 rebounds in his most physical game of the season. Paul Zipser had 11 points and Antonio Blakeney had 10, but shooting four of 14. Bobby Portis had 15 points and 15 rebounds. The Bulls were 16 of 35 on threes.

The Bulls fell to 24-45. The Cavaliers are 40-29.

After trailing 48-31 early in the second quarter and 69-52 at halftime, the Bulls behind a huge Valentine third quarter closed within 85-81 after three quarters and then tied the game at 99 and 105 late before James made crucial saving plays.

James was playing for the Cavaliers, but not many other regulars played for either team. Kevin Love remained out injured and Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance all were out for Cleveland. Lauri Markkanen remained out with back spasms. Kris Dunn was out with a sprained toe. Zach LaVine was out with knee tendinitis and Noah Vonleh also with a toe sprain. Robin Lopez was inactive. So the Bulls started the unusual lineup of Justin Holiday, Zipser, Felicio, Payne and Valentine mentioned last in the famous Bulls pregame introductions. Valentine responded to that with a team high 11 first half points on three of four three pointers. But with James getting in the half 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists the Cavaliers led 69-52 at halftime. The Bulls had a credible start and first quarter, trailing 32-31 after one quarter. The Bulls kept up the pace, pushing the ball to start and with more activity than in recent starts to games. Holiday had a nice back door cut for a three-point play, Felicio was on the floor for a loose ball and David Nwaba off the bench was out on fast breaks. But the Bulls collapsed to open the second quarter, going into isolation shooting mode. The Cavaliers took advantage behind a big quarter from Jordan Clarkson with a 16-0 run to start the second quarter and 48-31 lead after two Bulls timeouts. Valentine stopped the run with a three and a pull up jumper and the Bulls got back within 59-50 and had a spectacular two-hand post dunk on a two-on-one over George Hill from Antonio Blakeney. But the Cavs then closed the half with a pair of threes against questionable Bulls shot selection and that 17-point Cleveland halftime lead.

It was Valentine in the third quarter who was sending some love for the Bulls. The man introduced last was the best as the Bulls rallied all the way back into the game, trailing just 85-81 after three quarters. Valentine got the Bulls going with a pair of threes to open the second half. Payne was vital pushing the ball after misses and turnovers, Felicio with good finish on a slick run out to get within 10. Felicio also saved a second loose ball diving to the floor. Payne then had a dunk on a fast break after a turnover and suddenly the Bulls were trading by six. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue became ill and was in the locker room for the second half. Valentine closed the third with a step back jumper and 16 third quarter points. It seemed the Bulls had then had their chance with James resting to startle fourth quarter. But with a pair of turnovers and some rushed shots, the Bulls were outscored 10-3 to start the fourth and trailed 95-84 with 8:44 left in the game. But Valentine would not let the Bulls give in. Valentine reverted to the playmaking he did in college with so many of the Bulls regular guards out, driving into the lane and finding teammates and making his own big shots. Valentine’s quick three over a screen gave the Bulls an unlikely tie to  the game with 4:12 left at 99. LeBron went out to carry the Cavs the rest of the way and it was a 6-0 Cavs run. But once again the Bulls came back with Zipser and Payne threes to tie the game yet again at 105. But then it was LeBron directing the play and making the big shot, a pullup for a 111-105 lead with 39 seconds left and the Bulls had to foul the Cavs down the stretch.