The Bulls Saturday despite losing 114-109 to the Cleveland Cavaliers played one of their best, artistic, appealing and most spirited games of the season. They had a rollicking 30 assists on 41 baskets, a career high 10 assists for Cameron Payne along with 13 points. They lapped the Cavaliers with 21 fast break points, Cristiano Felicio with his first double/double of the season while diving on the floor more than the kids wiping up the wet spots, repeatedly prying away loose balls.
And in the sentence most unlikely to be written in the NBA this season, Denzel Valentine cancelled out LeBron James. Valentine had career highs with 34 points and eight three pointers along with seven rebounds, six assists and a block. James had a triple double with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists and he needed a basket, an assist, a block and a steal after the Bulls tied the game at 105 with 1:41 left on a Payne three. With James and Valentine running their offenses, James had six turnovers and Valentine none.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Denzel either got a good quality shot up or made the right play; really solid all the way around.
Which is a good thing. Except that these guys, arguably who would be considered the bottom of the Bulls roster with players virtually dismissed like Payne, Felicio and Paul Zipser, all of whom started, played a tougher, more unselfish, active, competitive game against a quality opponent than the regular starters in recent weeks.
This unlikely fivesome with Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine all out with minor injuries, got a fast start and then mostly outplayed a reasonably representative Cavaliers team with George Hill, Jeff Green, J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson until it took one of James’ best games of the season to finally knock out these Bulls irregulars.
“You’re playing the best player in the world, put the team on his back at the end. Not much you can do about that,” Valentine said with a shrug. "It's kind of frustrating. He's hitting tough shots. That's why he's the best player on the planet. Couple of tough calls late in the game that could've gone either way. But LeBron made tough shots down the stretch. That's what great players do.”
It’s no shame to lose to not only LeBron at his best, but LeBron desperate with the Cavaliers gamely trying to hold onto just a home court spot in the first round of the playoffs. This perhaps is James’ most vulnerable team in a decade with the loss of Kyrie Irving, the mid season trades and injuries that still have Kevin Love out. The Cavs raised their record to 40-29 closing a 3-3 road trip.
The Bulls fell to 24-45 and back behind the Knicks for the eighth poorest record in the league regarding post season lottery odds. The Bulls play Monday in New York.
But Saturday’s game was something of a puzzle for the Bulls.
The Bulls also made Robin Lopez inactive. Noah Vonleh, who had been starting, also was out with a minor injury. So the Bulls started the much maligned Payne and Justin Holiday in the backcourt, Valentine at small forward and last in the famous pregame introductions, along with the rarely used Zipser and Felicio, the latter having his poorest season with the Bulls.
And then those five were something of a revelation along with Bobby Portis, who had 15 points and 15 rebounds. Zipser had 11 points, his first double digit scoring game in more than a month and just seventh this season. Zipser did sit out nine games with injury. With 10 points and 10 rebounds, Felicio had his first double/double of the season and just fourth game scoring in double figures. Payne now leads Bulls point guards in shooting and plus/minus and the last five games is shooting 55 percent on threes with 11 points and 4.4 assists with just one turnover per game.
“He’s just playing confident,” Valentine said about Payne. “He’s a good player. He was a lottery pick for a reason. He works extremely hard on his craft and it’s showing.”
Perhaps the best thing that could come out of Saturday’s game is an instruction manual for the regular starters about the mode, manner and method of approaching a game and following through. It hardly was a perfect effort, the Bulls being outscored 16-0 to start the second quarter and trailing 48-31. It still was 69-52 Cavs at halftime with a mostly atrocious defensive effort.
But then it was Valentine’s day on St. Patrick’s Day.
The Chicago River famously is turned green for the day, though that also seemed to be the sickly look in the faces of the Cavs as Valentine had 16 third quarter points with four three pointers along with some brilliant fast break play with Payne and Felicio. The Bulls thus got within 85-81 after three quarters.
Then it was left for James to save the Cavs after the Bulls recovered from an early fourth quarter 95-84 deficit accumulated without James.
Valentine then made another one of those uncanny floaters in the lane, Valentine set Felicio up for a roll to the basket and score, Portis made a pullup jumper and when Valentine Bolt quick came over a screen for a three with 4:12 left, the game was tied at 99.
“It shows what I'm capable of,” said Valentine. “I believe in myself, even when I'm out there playing bad. I put the work in no matter what happens. Over the course of the year, I've played smarter.
Which perhaps gives the Bulls some other thoughts.
In this evaluation time, it’s encouraging to see players like Valentine, Payne and even Felicio have this kind of impact. But then where do they fit in? Is this an aberration or a validation? Valentine probably sees the floor and moves the ball better than anyone on the roster. But he doesn’t have the high level of athletic ability and explosive play compared with players like Dunn and LaVine. Yet, Valentine in the fourth quarter ran the offense, creating shots for others with his penetration and remained the long shooting threat. Valentine leads the Bulls in three point shooting at 39.1 percent (David Nwaba is 41 percent, but with just 34 attempts).
Valentine continues to make the case that he can be a crucial link in the Bulls chain.
“It’s good to get out there and play well, have a career night. But obviously you want to win at the end of the day,” said Valentine. “You play to win; not to go out there and have a good game. I was just trying to be aggressive. With Zach and Kris being out, I knew somebody was going to have to put the team on their back, be aggressive, be that go-to guy. I figured it could be me. I was just playing confident. I work hard, my coaches believe in me, my teammates believe in me. They had my back all game and allowed me to keep going.”
This was, to step back a bit and focus on the magnitude of it all, potentially one of the more shocking outcomes of the season. Sure, the Cavs were closing a long trip. But they needed the game, they had a reasonable facsimile of their rotation and LeBron was serious and attacking.
So the Cavs called timeout at that 99-99 crossroads with assistant Larry Drew filling in for coach Tyronn Lue, who was taken ill at halftime. The Cavs were ahead 17 at that time. Though it was the second time this season against the Bulls that Lue left the game sick. Sometimes you can get a bad reaction being away too long from that Cleveland lake water.
James came roaring back with a 20 footer, his fadeaway jump shot much improved. Jeff Green then blocked what looked like a sure Portis layup on a slick Payne pass. LeBron got the ball and ran down court ahead of just about everyone for a score. He appeared to be fouled and didn’t get the call. Life does even up at times.
Portis missed inside again after a good Valentine assist. Portis has been excellent since the Nikola Mirotic trade, but still often has to gather at the basket before he goes up. James then lobbed one for Green for a 105-99 Cavs lead with 3:05 left. Game? The Bulls will say when it’s game!
Payne drove and got Zipser an opening for a three. James missed, but Antonio Blakeney, with a tough shooting game at four of 14, missed a three, one of many quick ones he attempted. After Clarkson missed a three, Payne pulled up for the three to tie the game at 105 with 1:41 left.
Valentine then made his one true mistake of the game, running into Clarkson shooting a three for a four-point play and 109-105 Cavs lead with 1:27 left. Payne drove and got hammer blocked by a leapin’ Jose Calderon. Then LeBron pretty much closed it with an isolation against Zipser and a neat 14 footer for a 111-105 Cleveland lead with 39 seconds left.
Back at the rim the Bulls rolled, James becoming a pain with another block on Payne. But Blakeney got the ball, driving and dunking to trail 111-107 with 26.8 seconds left. The Bulls had to begin fouling and the Cavs made enough free throws to avoid having to explain the unexpected.
Wait a second Steph, we have to figure out a way to get by these young Bulls..