It looks like Cameron Payne finally has made it. No, not because he tied a career high Friday with 17 points and a team high six assists in the Bulls 118-105 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Not because of the way he got the Bulls off to their best start in weeks with his scoring and playmaking, shooting threes, look away passes, penetrating drives for scores.
It was more so the double technical foul at the close of the first half with Brandon Jennings, the Bulls and Bucks tied at 61 in a frenzied first half. It seems Jennings had been taunting and challenging Payne, and Payne was right back in his face.
The other guys seem to have learned his name.
"He was talking to me," explained Payne. "I ain't just going to back down. I have to say something back. I'm just out there playing, trying to play good; I guess he felt pressure."
The Bucks felt a lot of pressure from the Bulls starting point guard, at least lately with Kris Dunn out with a toe injury. Bucks guards couldn't contain Payne, who was making himself not only a pain in the neck, but a Payne on the scoreboard with a dozen first half points.</p
"I thought Cam was terrific early in the game, getting guys involved, hitting shots. It was fun, fun to watch," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "I loved everything about Cam's game tonight."
Though perhaps the most significant part was the opponent's respect. They don't usually trash talk to you unless you are a threat or are frustrating them. They don't worry about the guys who don't do much.
"Nobody ever talked to me," Payne admitted when asked about this edge. "I'm not just going to back down from anybody. I like competing. I feel like I'm coming out and playing well, but it's not good enough because we are not winning, so I have to be better."
That result thing for the Bulls stuffed with ambivalence these days given the various considerations of development, deployment and the draft. The Bulls dropped to 24-48. The Bucks playing with injured Giannis Antetokounmpo are 38-34 and holding onto the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference over Detroit. The Bulls are in Detroit Saturday.
Lauri Markkanen won't play in Detroit after returning Friday following five games out with a back issue. Markkanan had nine points and six rebounds in 22 minutes, and after a slow start appeared certain.
"It's not 100 percent, but good to get some run in; it feels better," Markkanen said. "I wouldn't be too worried about it. It's twice as many games as I've ever played, a little different. I know I'm going to be working on that this summer."
Denzel Valentine led the Bulls with 20 points. There was Payne's 17 and Bobby Portis with 16. Cristiano Felicio had his fourth consecutive double digit scoring game with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Justin Holiday added 11 points and David Nwaba 10. Both Nwaba and Payne suffered ankle sprains during the game, Payne leaving during the third quarter in a stretch that coincided with the Bulls losing a 72-67 lead and trailing 90-82 after three quarters. When the Bucks opened the fourth quarter with a 12-7 advantage behind former Bull Tony Snell with 18 points and Shabazz Muhammad with 21, it was too far back for the Bulls to return. They would get within six points twice late in the fourth quarter, though in a superior effort to the recent losses to the Knicks and Nuggets.
The Bucks shot 49.4 percent and made 15 of 30 threes to offset a 51-36 Bulls rebounding edge. The Bucks bench had 70 points to 37 for the Bulls. Zach LaVine also was out injured for the Bulls. Paul Zipser went out again hurt and Robin Lopez was active, but he did not play. Lopez is expected to play next week on the three-game road trip. Antonio Blakeney is out for the season with a wrist fracture.
"It was fun to see the guys respond to a bad performance, come in with the right mentality and get off to another good start in the third quarter," said Hoiberg. "Then hit another big lull where they controlled the game and took over and they got it going from three and that was the difference in the game."
Payne came back with about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and got on board with a three, but the Bulls could not make that last run.
Still, seeing the way Payne ran and the team ran with him was a delight to Hoiberg as the Bulls led by a dozen points in the first quarter and 34-24 after one quarter. Payne was out when the Bucks began the second quarter with a 14-3 run that kept the Bulls from gaining any true separation the rest of the game and then eventually falling to the plethora of threes.
‘We came out of the gate with the right mentality," agreed Hoiberg. "I thought we really set the tone and it led to some good offense for us. The ball was really moving. And Cam, his pace was phenomenal. Even on a made basket he was getting it up the floor quickly, spraying the ball ahead, getting into the paint, making plays. Had a couple of good floaters, made plays all night long. Cam, you can tell, is getting more comfortable out there, getting himself in shape. That first half was awesome to watch."
Which is what this close of the season also is about for the Bulls.
Felicio has begun to show the versatility and offense that could earn him a regular place, and now it's been Payne, who was on the team's most unwanted list after the trade last season and summer foot surgery once again.
The 6-3 lefty guard was rehabilitating and didn't play until after All-Star break. No one much asked about him before that given his poor play after the trade for Taj Gibson last year and an erratic summer league performance and then surgery again. Hey, Taj was leaving, Doug McDermott wasn't fitting in. Took a chance. It didn't work out.
Or maybe it is.
Payne finally is getting a full opportunity and is beginning to be noticed. Including by opponents.
He is averaging 8.4 points and 4.1 assists for the season, but in the last eight games in about 25 minutes per game is averaging 10.9 points and 5.1 assists. He's shooting 48 percent on threes at 16 of 33 and would be shooting about 50 percent overall if not for one poor shooting game in New York. Payne plays Hoiberg's preferred style as well as any of the guards, pushing the ball, throwing ahead, penetrating and making plays. He's a competent shooter who actually does play a lot like Jennings, the former Bucks guard back with the team on a 10-day contract. Both are probably more offense oriented, and Payne's offense apparently proved offensive to Jennings in the first half when the two challenged one another enough that the officials assessed each with technical fouls when the teams left the floor at halftime.
"They always like to talk to Bob (Portis) because Bob comes and competes," Payne pointed out. "I feel like that's what we've got in this locker room, guys who are not going to back down.
"Last season was pretty tough," he admits. "Circumstances were way different. People are going to think what they want to think. I'm just going to come out and do my thing. If they don't like it they don't have to like it. Coach liked it and Gar and Pax like it, teammates like it. That's all that matters."
Well, we're not really sure anyone in management did like it. But they have to like what they are seeing now from a player who looks like he can run a team, make plays and shots.
"I feel my confidence is high," said Payne. "You get what you put in. I watch a lot of film, put in a lot of work. I just let my game talk. I'm not going to sit here and tell you, ‘Rah, rah, rah.' Let my game talk. I'm not no crazy scorer, I'm no crazy defender. I'm a good team guy and that's what I am going to continue to do. I don't feel there's much to judge me by. This is my first real good opportunity; you're seeing me."
Not bad; not bad at all.