The Bulls winning streak is over at seven, the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday riding LeBron James down the stretch survived a last second Bulls attempt to tie in a 115-112 Cavs victory.
But the Bulls renewal continues unabated with multiple fourth quarter comebacks on the road against the East's hottest team, a season high 34 assists in the Bulls eighth consecutive game scoring more than 100 points led by rookie Lauri Markkanen back on track with 25 points.
And supported by Nikola Mirotic still wearing the glass slippers with 10 fourth quarter points to help rally the Bulls from an 89-79 deficit, a season best 18 points with five rebounds and four assists from Denzel Valentine, a season high 14 assists from Kris Dunn and never a blink or complaint despite getting just eight free throws to 22 for the Cavaliers.
"We did some things tonight that were as good as any we've had in the last eight, to be able to make it one possession and have a chance to tie on the last possession shows the growth we've had with this team," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "Last time we played Cleveland in our home building they absolutely drilled us, down 25 in that game. We are getting better. The biggest thing is the effort and I thought we had great effort the entire game. Lauri was phenomenal; great to see him have a breakout game like this. We battled them, stood toe to toe with them and gave us a chance to win; effort was tremendous coming on a back to back, sitting on a plane for 40 minutes when we got in with no stairs."
It was an NBA milestone of sorts as the regular team plane was replaced by one much smaller, NBA players, it was believed, for the first time in more than two decades traveling in what approximated coach class. And then with the plane too small for the stairs in Cleveland, so the players after almost an hour wait on the plane had to exit climbing down a makeshift luggage conveyor braced up against the plane.
This was a case of the baggage waiting for the passengers. It didn't seem an ideal harbinger.
But that had little to do with the game as the Bulls opened the fourth quarter forced into turnovers on four consecutive possessions, resulting in Hoiberg rushing his starters back in less than two minutes into the quarter. They then were impressive with scores in six consecutive possessions, a Mirotic three and catch at the rim for a layup on a wonderful Valentine pass, Lopez burrowing up inside against the smaller Cavs and Justin Holiday getting the Bulls back ahead 92-91 with 7:46 left by stripping the ball from LeBron James and scoring on a fast break dunk.
"Guys could have folded," agreed Hoiberg, though hardly pleased with the outcome. "We made some subs and the guys went in and calmed down and made great plays to get us right back into the game. To climb right back in that game is great sign for a young team that you don't panic, you don't put your heads down, you keep battling through the adversity. I know we talk about it all the time, but we did that tonight."
More than once as the Bulls kept answering like the Cavs were a ringing cell phone, Dunn with a pull-up jumper and drive after Cleveland went back ahead 97-94 on a Kyle Korver three, Markkanen with a four-point play making his only three pointer after Cleveland took a 109-102 lead with 2:22 left.
"His footwork is getting good on those little mid range kind of (Karl) Malone face up plays," said Hoiberg. "He's got to find different ways to score than the three-point line the way teams are hugging him out there and he was terrific. The (three) he hit tonight was the four-point play, which was a huge shot. But the way teams are running at him he's got to be willing to (also) put it on the floor."
Mirotic after a quiet first three quarters then came out of a timeout with 1:01 left and the Bulls trailing 113-107 with a straight on three and back within three points again. James with 34 points and nine assists missed a jumper and Valentine drove to get the Bulls within 113-112 with 14.3 seconds left. The Bulls had to foul and in something of a rarity, James converted both his late free throws.
The Cavs broke down the Bulls last play for Markkanen with 11.1 seconds left for the tying three, first Dunn blocked and then Valentine forcing a miss at the buzzer.
"They played it well, switched it and Denzel was the open man on the back side and, unfortunately, we didn't get a better look than that," said Hoiberg.
And unfortunately for the Bulls, the Cavaliers had James, who scored eight of the Cavs last 10 points and every time they needed a basket pretty much backed over some Bull like a cement mixer and scored. James scored or assisted on all the Cavs points but two in the last five minutes. The Bulls seemed wholly good enough to beat the other guys.
"We just didn't make the stops that we needed to," said Valentine. "Like I've said, I feel we've always been able to compete with any team in the league. It wasn't a surprise to me we came out and played the way we did; a month ago, I don't know if I would have seen us (come back) all the way down the stretch. But I've always had confidence in us from training camp that we could compete with any team in the league."
The Bulls are 10-21 and have another serious test Saturday in Boston against a team they beat by 23 points in the United Center earlier this month.
But if the final result was disappointing, even in the second of the back to back on the road against Cavs, the team's spirit and elan seems undiminished.
"I think we have a lot of talent, a lot of young guys who are playing amazing," said Mirotic, who remained efficient with three of six threes. "Lauri was terrific tonight and once again Lauri and me played well together (at the close). What everyone needs to expect from us and what we need to do is give our best; that's what we can do. So far the last eight games playing way better on both sides, especially offensively in each game scoring over 100 points, which is great and I think we are going to continue to grow as a group and build from this moment."
It was an uncertain start for the Bulls, turnovers leading to Cavs scores and a quick 10-3 deficit. But the Bulls recovered with the playmaking of Dunn, Valentine and Holiday to trail just 29-27 after one quarter. Jerian Grant shot well early and Markkanan seemed to be reinventing himself with driving scores and dunking finishes.
"They are playing my shot, so I am just trying to read the defense better," said the phlegmatic Markkanen. "I am adjusting and trying to read what they give me. I've had my ups and downs, but the most important thing is I am trying to get better every day. It is slowing down a little bit; the beginning of the season I felt I was rushing, everything was happening so fast."
Markkanen came fast to start the season with the suspension of Bobby Portis and injury to Mirotic from the Portis punch. Then Markkanen missed three more games earlier this month with back spasms and totaled 19 points on 33 percent shooting in his two games back. Slump? Rookie wall?
It turns out no bricks for him with the high level effort playing against Kevin Love.
After trailing 58-56 at half, the Bulls took a lead with Markkanen running out with a power slam dunk after a James turnover, then a driving finish on a left side move. But the fatal sequence came late in the third after the Bulls led 77-72 on a Dunn pull up.
The Bulls failed to score a field goal the rest of the quarter and then had an unusual collapse from the reserves with those four turnovers, a 10-point Cavs lead and what you figured would soon be a 25-point Bulls deficit. But this time there was none of that head down stuff. They could hold their heads high even in defeat.
"We had a good game, but it was not enough to win in Cleveland," said Mirotic. "So right now we need to think about Boston."
The show goes on.