They're trying hard, they're reveling in the chance to be NBA players, and with a 90-82 win over the Orlando Magic Friday, the Bulls young hopefuls are having fun. Look mom, they're in the NBA and on TV. Can you believe it?
"A big part of what we are looking at and trying to accomplish these last weeks of the season is, ‘Are these guys long term fits?'" explained Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg after a fourth quarter rally with the unlikeliest lineup. "We love what we have seen from Ryan (Arcidiacono, with a team most eight fourth quarter points) whether in the G-league and what he has done with us. Noah (Vonleh), I thought was solid. He's a guy who just swallows rebounds (11 for the game with eight points). (Cristiano) Felicio after a tough start to the third bounced back and gave us some good plays as well (and a career high 16 rebounds with eight points).
"And then Sean (Kilpatrick, leading scorer along with Lauri Markkanen with 13 points), he's done some interesting things. It is a big part to get a look. Sean, I've always liked him. He's really good at getting the ball and driving it into the paint, a very good cutter. He does a lot of things well out there. He's athletic, he got himself to the free throw line (seven of eight). So he's going to get opportunities here and Arcidiacono, same thing. I thought he was the key player as far as turning things around, a wonderful kid, comes to work and does those little things. And Sean can score, hit the huge three for us when things broke down and he's going to battle on the other end."
And so that's how the Bulls finally ended their seven-game losing streak and recovered from losing a 14-point first half lead in a gruesome two for 22 third quarter. That turned funereal a joyous first half celebration that looked like it had closed with Felicio's first career three, Bulls players virtually skipping for joy to the locker room before learning it was late and overruled.
"I was mad at Felicio for not getting that shot off in time to end the half to give us a little momentum," Hoiberg joked.
The Bulls went into the fourth quarter trailing 69-66. But with Arcidiacono opening with a three after a Magic score, the Bulls hit Orlando with a 14-0 run. It was a quarter with Arcidiacono in a fun extension dive taking him into the third row going for a steal and Arcidiacono and Kilpatrick closing it out with late threes after Orlando got back within five points with 3:14 left.
The Bulls moved to 25-51 while Orlando continues to plummet to 22-53. Of course, there will be some who complain about the Bulls winning when perhaps more losses, and especially to a team with a poorer record, could lead to a better draft pick.
But down the stretch of the game the Magic was playing their starters and best players, like Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, while Hoiberg without playing Robin Lopez at all, sitting Justin Holiday the second half and without Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn was playing a fivesome of Arcidiacono, Kilpatrick, Felicio, Jerian Grant and Noah Vonleh. That's a group with extensive G-league experience, three of whom just recently even joined the Bulls. There wasn't any deeper on the roster Hoiberg could have gone.
But sometimes guys make plays and shots, and that's what the Bulls need to discover, especially in games like Friday's with the result uncertain until the close.
So let them have some fun, and injured Antonio Blakeney was doing so as reporters entered the Bulls locker room. It was a rare cluster inching toward Kilpatrick in his third game with the Bulls. Blakeney had wandered over to talk with his friend, and decided to change roles.
"How do you feel about yourself?" Blakeney began in interview form, taking on the media role in addressing Kilpatrick. "You're in the game and took the big shot. How do you feel so comfortable to take that shot? You weren't making them all game (two of 11 overall), but you felt comfortable making that shot at the end of the game?"
Kilpatrick looked at Blakeney with a smirk, but continued.
"Just got teammates that support me in what I am doing and, like I said, when you have guys like them who have been watching you over the years and know what you can do, it makes it a lot easier for you to take those shots," Kilpatrick answered as reporters looked on. "I heard him (Blakeney), I heard Kris, I heard Zach telling me, ‘Yo, just keep shooting.' That was something I just kept doing."
You get the sense no one has to tell Kilpatrick twice to shoot.
Blakeney actually was pretty good at this, asking a question with a question mark at the end, bringing up Kilpatrick's poor shooting. So I gestured for him to ask another question. Better questions than a lot of the guys often get.
"So do you feel you are getting comfortable with the team?" Blakeney posed to the new arrival. "You just got here and didn't have much practice, but do you feel you are getting more comfortable out there for these five, six seven games?"
This guy is good.
"Yeah, we do a lot of, how should I say, off court activities together," said Kilpatrick. "The best thing about it is when I first got here, these guys treated me like I was family already."
With that Cameron Payne sitting next to Kilpatrick yelled, "Family!"
"When you have guys like that, it makes things a lot easier," Kilpatrick went on. "We are all going through this together and it makes things easier."
It truly was a nice scene and you could see the authentic camaraderie.
Markkanen across the room was finished dressing and putting on a shirt that resembled a leopard skin (cotton, not fur). He wasn't hearing the end of it. He broke into some Borat responses.
We don't yet know how good they can be. But the Bulls appear to be creating a climate of support, and it's evident with the bench, especially on the road. At home with the supporting crowd, the players tend to be more subdued. But on the road in an opposing environment, it becomes a protective safety cocoon. The response to Felicio's thwarted three was joyous, Felicio breaking into a big, knowing smile as teammates rushed to greet him like in one of those walkoff home runs. No pie in the face, though.
That enthusiasm was evident in the beginning of the game, Markkanen opening with a three to kick off one of the team's better starts in weeks, the Bulls ahead 25-11 before leading 30-24 after one. With the Bulls leading 9-7, Markkanen on the run from Payne for a lane down the left side blew in and dunked over Vucevic for a three-point play. The bench blew up, Lopez on the floor watching going into a dead faint, players leaping to their feet as they would right after with back to back Payne threes.
"The ball was moving," said Hoiberg with pride. "Cam, I thought, did a great job of getting our pace going. Lauri was terrific to start that game. Everybody in that first half. In the second half, we just came out flat, awful in the third quarter. But I gave our guys credit for hanging in there and finding a way to get the game turned back around and had a great defensive fourth quarter. And Ryan Arcidiacono a lot of credit for coming out there and giving us a ton of energy."
That second quarter was filled with highlights, as well, Markkanen lining up on the wing and driving and reversing for a score, Payne with a smooth pull-up three, David Nwaba anticipating a Magic inbounds save and stepping in front to dunk the ball. Then it was the Bulls lowest scoring third quarter of the season, nine points and suddenly a deficit. And then without any regular starters in the fourth quarter and Bobby Portis with just a cameo, the Bulls held Orlando to one of 11 on threes and pulled away with eight from Arcidiacono and seven from Kilpatrick.
Consider, that's two guys spending much of the season in the G-league, Kilpatrick waived by NBA teams three times this season alone.
"I've barely played all year long," Kilpatrick admitted. "I'm trying to get my legs back under me and a rhythm."
But he does look like a guard at 6-4 who can get points and is tough, willing to get into the paint and take the contact after stints with five NBA teams and even averaging 13 points in almost a full season with the Nets.
"The best thing about it is coach, they all told me to just keep playing and everything is going to fall for you and just continue to keep focusing on the things that you can control, like defense and rebounding," said Kilpatrick.
"Every time you step onto the court, it is an opportunity," Kilpatrick understands. "Everyone here, they pretty much know what I can do. Around the league they know what I can do. I just want to continue to get better on the the things I need to get better in, which is making the right plays and playing defense and continuing to keep rebounding because that is really huge for a guard. We're hungry; we want to win as much as we can. But playing hard in this league, that's what separates you. The great players from everyone else. Everyone doesn't really play hard every given moment. So the best thing we can do as a young group is continue to play hard and give our effort every time we step on the court."
It will produce some wins, and that is the culture the Bulls are trying to once again create.