Some will say that it’s just NBA summer league, the Bulls fabulously fun 84-82 overtime win Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves to finish with a perfect 7-0 record and win the summer league title.
But winning does matter; more so, perhaps, now than ever in professional basketball with high schoolers switching schools at a whim no matter the outcomes, shoe companies owning AAU teams and making games one big commercial promotion. Winning and losing, sure, depend on talent, but they also become habits. The Bulls are trying to build the right habits, and joke if you will, but Monday in Las Vegas did matter.
“People that say (it’s just summer league) are saying they didn’t win summer league,” said Bulls No. 1 pick Denzel Valentine, who made two memorable shots, one to force overtime and the second to win the game at the overtime buzzer. “Whoever is saying that, that’s a losing mentality. If you’re out here, you’re competing. If you’re out here and not competing, then why are you playing? Play these games just like an NBA game.”
Perhaps the NBA world will little note nor long remember the terrific basketball game played at the UNLV address Monday night. But perhaps the Bulls will benefit for what those players did there as Bobby Portis had 26 points with four of seven threes and 10 rebounds, Jerian Grant had 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and Cristian Felicio had 12 points and eight rebounds. Valentine had just seven points, five on those critical shots while scoreless in the first three quarters as he was three of 10 overall and one of seven on threes.
But Valentine and that closing group with Grant, Portis, Felicio and Spencer Dinwiddie, many of whom will play together this season in an intriguing reserve group, showed not only grace under pressure, but the sort of perseverance and resilience that forms a top competitor.
“I told the guys I don’t care where you win, but winning is important because it teaches you a lot,” said assistant Pete Myers, who coached the summer league team. “I don’t care if it’s the summer league, in the pro am; every time you lace ‘em up, every time you go out to play, winning should be on your mind. That’s what you should try to do. I told them in the locker room, ‘You’re the best team in the summer’. Who else can say that?
“Fred (coach Hoiberg) at the end of the year came to our coaches and we talked about changing the culture,” related Myers. “Bobby, Cris and Doug (McDermott, sitting courtside) were in our facility every day working out. This is the start of it; people don’t want to believe it, but this is the start of it; this is what you do. Now since we have been invested in those kids’ development, trust comes easier when it comes time to coach those guys. The guys are at our facility getting the work; they know they can come to our building and improve. It shows players you are invested in them getting better.”
Those Bulls summer leaguers were impressive.
Valentine continued to show a confidence and composure rare for a rookie.
But he is a rare rookie.
“Four years of school,” Myers pointed out. “Who is his coach? He’s been in moments like this. You put the ball in his hand you know something good is probably going to happen. From the moment we saw him, the moment he came to work out, he’s a confident kid; he’s not afraid of the moment or the situation. I have this on the board in my office: Aggressive/Failure. That’s what he shows all the time. He’s not afraid to fail and I love him for it.”
Bulls fans likely will, as well, especially the way Valentine handled the close of a game that looked like a sure loss, then a sure win, then a sure second overtime.
“Coach Charlie (Henry, assistant) drew it up,” said Valentine of the regulation tying three with two tenths of a second left. “It was a flare for me or Bobby. I was wide open. They left me open for a reason because I didn’t make shots during the game. I would’ve left me open, too. But I got open and made the shot. I’m here for a reason. The Bulls picked me to be a confident player and come through when the team needs me and be a winner. That’s what I preached during my draft interviews. I just keep winning on my mind.
“As soon as they tied it up (in overtime),” Valentine related, “I went over to Coach Charlie and said, ‘Give me the ball. I’m going to win this game.’”
And what do you know if he didn’t live up to his promise, a stepback 18 footer at the buzzer after Minnesota tied it with a three with 11.7 seconds left.
Valentine pretty much took the ball and got himself in position to assume the responsibility.
“It was crazy when they hit that shot and then Denzel came back and hit that big one. We had a chemistry that was good for us to carry on to the season,” Felicio said afterward with some wonder and a beatific smile. “I did enjoy it; to win like that for me, it was the first time to win like that, something I will never forget. I have never experienced anything like that.”
Bulls players flooded onto the court to celebrate with Valentine followed by a trophy presentation. Las Vegas Summer league has become a show and big business, too. But the Bulls may have hit something of their own jackpot with players not afraid to succeed and not accepting of defeat.
“They gave me an incredible team,” said Myers. “We have two bigs who are coming (Felicio and Portis). It looks like they are going to be pretty good players up there. We had some veteran guys on the perimeter and they gelled well together. I’m just glad I had an opportunity to share this moment. The game moment, the tension, the competitive spirit it took to overcome some obstacles during the game. Young guys grow from this.”
Sure, it may prove instructive, but it also was a heck of a fun basketball game, played seriously with emotion, commitment to defense and competitive spirit. There was the back story of the Minnesota team now coached by former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau sat courtside while Hoiberg was a few rows up in the stands. Thibodeau’s assistants, Andy Greer and Rick Brunson, both former Bulls assistants, were on the Minnesota bench and were taking the game very seriously with exuberant greetings of players after big plays.
It was a fast start for the Bulls with Grant driving the ball and on one occasion all the way for a slam dunk. It was Grant’s best game of the summer and he won the final game MVP award. The Bulls led 14-4 and 18-13 after one quarter with tenacious defense. Felicio and Portis were aggressive trapping and helping on the pick and roll and Myers had the guards pressuring up into ball handlers. It was more aggressive than anything we saw last season.
The starting group was dominant as all were double figures plus in the plus/minus. The Bulls reserve group couldn’t score and left open the three-point shooters who led Minnesota to a 19-0 start to the second quarter and 14-point lead. It was 42-32 Minnesota at halftime. Promising Timberwolves rookie Kris Dunn sat out with a concussion sustained earlier in the tournament.
With the Bulls starters back to open the second half, the Bulls behind Portis’ three-point shooting went on a 19-2 run to regain the lead and then it was a battle of big shots the rest of the way.
After that third quarter, I ran into NBA Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood sitting courtside. The NBA Retired Players’ Association is having its annual convention this week and several former players were at the game. Haywood, of course, is famous for the Spencer Haywood Rule, which enabled players before their college classes graduated to enter the NBA. Haywood was remarking about Portis, whom he said impressed him most on the floor.
“I like the way he plays,” Haywood told me. “He’s old school in the way he’ll shoot and get inside. Old style. You can go somewhere playing like that.”
The Bulls certainly hope so as Portis led the team in summer league scoring and emerged as the motivational leader.
“It’s a confidence booster for the regular season coming up,” Portis said of the tournament win. “This team has been together and prepared and fought and went hard for the last two weeks and our team pushed each other. Credit to Denzel for making the shot, but I thought the team as a whole was like that from Game 1. I feel like out here this summer we had to find our roles on the team for what we could be in the season. Those five players who closed the game can be on the floor together; it’s going to be fun to play with those guys because we are all unselfish and we all play hard.
“I feel like the summer league is big for young guys to gain experience,” said Portis. “Last year we had a disappointing season and we are looking forward to this season. I feel like me playing (summer league) last year and coming back and helping these younger guys; yes, I’m young, too. But at the same time try to help guys get better and they help me get better.”
It looked like Minnesota would steal the game when Tyus Jones with 27 points made a long three-point heave with 3.6 seconds left against excellent Bulls defense. Felicio came out to double. Jones was trapped against the left sideline and threw up a desperation shot as the time clock expired. And it went in.
Henry, who worked for Hoiberg at Iowa State, designed a terrific play in which Felicio got an inbounds and reacted to how the defense played Portis and Valentine. They went with Portis.
“We have a coach who drew up the last two plays,” said Myers. “Coach Henry. He did a phenomenal job. The one play to take it to overtime and then at the end Denzel kind of did it himself; this is Fred’s system. It ain’t (our) plays, it’s Fred’s plays.”
Valentine, who’d made one shot in the first 39 minutes and 59.8 seconds, made his second and first three pointer to tie. No, they didn’t foul.
“I made so many big shots and I’ve played in so many different types of games,” said Valentine, who now joins the USA Basketball Select Team to practice against Jimmy Butler and the Olympic team the rest of the week along with McDermott. “I’ve had games like this where I’ve not scored all game and then hit big buckets. I’ve had games where I scored all the points and then missed game winners. That was our first time running it. That was all Coach Charlie. Coach Myers did a great job pushing us throughout the whole game. We were down 10 and 11 and he was holding us accountable, but staying positive. He was one of the biggest reasons why we were able to keep our heads up and still make plays when we needed to.”
The overtime looked easy for the Bulls as Grant scored five straight points to start. But Dinwiddie missed a pair of free throws leading by three with 18,6 seconds left. The Bulls then got suckered in by Jones, who passed to Xavier Silas for a three to tie the game at 82 with 11.7 seconds left.
“It was a play to get the ball out to me at the top,” said Valentine. “Screen and roll with me and Bobby. Slip out with Bobby and hopefully they messed up and maybe it was a kickback. Got the switch we wanted and I just attacked. I didn’t have my legs. I kind of slipped a little bit. But I pump faked and had a clean look and just shot it with confidence.”
Even Dwyane Wade on a shoe company trip to Asia tweeted about Valentine’s game winner.
“It’s just giving me confidence that I can play with anyone,” said Valentine. “I know it’s going to be a challenge. Those guys are the best in the world. But I’m excited for it.”
And good reason to get excited again to watch the Bulls.