Talk about your March craziness. How about 19 lead changes and 15 ties and the undrafted kid signaling to his Bulls teammates with five seconds left and trailing by a point to get out of his way; he's got this one.
And it would be as G-league superstar Antonio Blakeney, just over a week back with the Bulls in his 15th NBA game of his life, making two free throws with 1.8 seconds left to secure a 111-110 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.
"It was fun, said Blakeney, who finished with 10 points. "A great opportunity; my first time ending a game in the NBA.
Sure, it was the Grizzlies of 19 consecutive losses. But the Bulls contributed some basketball magic for mid-March, too, in a game with more meaning than moment.
It was the Grizzlies collapsing to 18-50 and the Bulls now 24-44 and with the ninth poorest record in the NBA as the Knicks slipped past them in the losing race. But even if the wink/wink is about hoping to obtain better odds for the upcoming draft lottery, players like Blakeney, Cameron Payne, Cristiano Felicio, Paul ZIpser and Noah Vonleh--you can't say the Bulls are playing their best lineups--were on the floor to finish the game and were the ones who came through with the big plays. Maybe if losing is desirable, you don't get there with the most desperate players.
For it was Felicio making a pair of clutch free throws with 40.5 seconds left to reclaim the lead for the Bulls, Payne with a fast break score with 1:13 left also to retake a lead for the Bulls after Zipser got the Bulls back within one point with 1:41 left on a reverse layup. That being after Felicio's rolling score on a neat Blakeney assist broke a 101 tie with 2:32 left in the game. It was a heck of a game that didn't matter much.
And won by the Bulls at least against a Memphis team this time was closing the game with Marc Gasol, which they didn't in the recent loss to the Bulls, and with Tyreke Evans back from injury after missing a month. The Grizzlies were tired of losing and anxious to end an historic streak. Not on Bulls time!
"The start of the fourth was a lot of fun, noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg about the combined eight three pointers in the first four minutes, five for the Bulls. "For two teams that aren't competing in the playoffs right now, that was a really high level, entertaining game. I think there were nine out of ten possessions where there were threes back and forth. The second unit once again bailed us out (season high 63 bench points). That's the way we wanted to finish the game. Put those guys under a pressure situation, and I thought they all went out and played with a lot of composure. I thought Cameron Payne was excellent as far as running the show. Big Felicio made a couple of really nice plays. Paul Zipser got to the basket and then Antonio Blakeney has the guts to flatten out the floor and take that last shot. For the first time really in that position; I thought those guys handled it very well.
It was an impressive close if also continuing to raise questions about the starters, though Lauri Markkanen remained in Chicago with back spasms. Kris Dunn finished with six points and four assists and suffered a sprained toe in the fourth quarter. Dunn is listed as day to day.
Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 20 points, but he shot just four of 12. He was 10 of 10 on free throws. Bobby Portis led the Bulls with 17 points and Denzel Valentine had 15 points all on three pointers.
"I was trying to be aggressive, said LaVine. "I missed some easy ones, but I got to the line and got to be effective some way. I'm glad we won the game. I think we all played a good overall game. They were still playing their starters, so it was a big game. The community and the fans are great (in Chicago). They understand my situation coming off a tough injury and working myself back in. I've had ups and downs, but I have to fight through that. It's part of the process. It gets frustrating at times, but I'm always positive, and I work.
Though once again the Bulls reserves came with the energy and aggression that proved the difference. Not only did they have a 63-18 scoring edge over the Memphis bench, but it was the Bulls reserves who pressured, trapped and upset the Grizzlies offense. It was the Bulls reserve group that held the Grizzlies to one of 12 shooting combined in the last minutes of the first and third quarters and then made the plays down the stretch for the second straight road win.
If it was encouraging to see players like Blakeney and Payne forcing turnovers in the backcourt ad racing out ahead after rebounds for scores, it was equally discouraging to once again witness the Bulls starters, though Markkanen was missing, with another lackluster start and double digit deficit within minutes.
"That's really concerning that the first group keeps going out and getting behind like that, Hoiberg acknowledged. "But they were able to get us back in. We took a lead. We were tied at the half, got a seven-point lead (with six minutes left) and put those subs in.
Hey, you can't blame the Bulls if they are winning too many games for the lottery.
They did play the bottom of their roster down the stretch. Maybe they've got something there.
Now about those starters...
It continues to be baffling the studied indifference the Bulls start games with these days. It was so again Thursday, falling behind 13-3, the only points on a Robin Lopez three, the fourth of his career. Both Dunn and LaVine again played tentatively, loose with the ball and failing to react. Once again, every Bulls starter had a minus on the plus/minus for the game and every reserve except Zipser had a plus.
They've been able to use the excuse about changing rotations with Lopez now playing just the first quarters and Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant not playing at all to accommodate those who haven't played much. But those players, particularly the much maligned Payne and Blakeney, the latter who spent most of the season in the G-league, have come in flying around the court, disrupting opposing offenses, pushing the ball, getting fast breaks, playing the way Hoiberg has sought from those more talented.
Perhaps players like Dunn and LaVine believe they have shown enough or will. They do revive after awhile, as they did immediately after that first Bulls timeout to cut the Grizzlies lead in half in the next few minutes. The Bulls would go on to trail 29-22 after one quarter. But that was more thanks to the spirited play of Portis, Blakeney and Payne that carried over to a 13-4 Bulls run to start the second quarter and the first Bulls lead of the game.
And then as Holmes would say, the game was on from there.
Vonleh has been intriguing in his tryout, if often confusing. He has a nice stroke, though he hasn't shot well. He helped lead the way back after that first timeout of the game with a drive from the top of the key for a score and then with a nice hustle play for a score on a LaVine assist that preceded a pair of Dunn scores for a 49-47 Bulls lead before it was tied at halftime at 52.
Vonleh finished with seven points and 10 rebounds and made some difficult passes for a big man, though again had a team worst plus/minus with one of six on threes.
The starters seemed a bit more determined to begin the second half. But they again fell behind 65-61 five minutes into the quarter led by the Grizzlies' Evans on his way to 25 points. If he didn't get hurt, he certainly would have been traded to one of the top contenders.
The Bulls led by LaVine attacked the basket the rest of the third quarter and led 78-75 going into the fourth when both teams starting raining down threes, two each from Payne and Valentine for the Bulls and one for Portis for a 95-89 Bulls lead with 8:17 left. And then Evans answered right away with his own and neither team could shoot out in front too far.
Not that the Bulls were trying to lose. But if they were they would have gone to the sort of lineup they did at that point with two undrafted players and two traded lottery picks needing maybe one letter to finish out bust.
But they made play after play with six lead changes and four ties in the last three minutes.
And maybe the best was Blakeney, the undrafted kid from LSU, teammate of Ben Simmons and a prep and college scoring star who had to make a Summer League impression to get a two-way G/League-NBA deal with the Bulls.
"I love to play basketball whether I'm in the G-League or here, said Blakeney. "Of course, I think I deserve to be up here all the time. My whole life I had to just fight for everything. Nothing has ever been given to me. I know this stuff isn't easy, but I'm confident because I know I work for everything that I have.
Blakeney was supposed to be part of yet another LSU basketball revival, the scorer to play with 2016 No. 1 overall pick Simmons. He was Florida Mr. Basketball, a McDonald's all-American who was the star of the game in Chicago when he played with Simmons. But it was a poorly coached, dysfunctional college team with losing records. Simmons' talent overwhelmed the record. Blakeney's couldn't quite despite being a solid 6-4 and about 190 pounds. He is quick to shoot; very quick. There weren't many shots he didn't think he could make and he took them. He had 17 predraft workouts, including the Bulls. And then nothing.
"We were 10-21, so there was a lot of bad talk about my program, he said. "Teams talk about (non) winning programs (as a negative) even though I've been a winner all my life, AAU, high school. But a lot of guys go undrafted and still have great careers in the league.
So without any promise, Blakeney went with the Bulls in the summer, got an invite to camp and was the standout. But he didn't play much in preseason or early season and when he got a chance he pressed and forced shots. He went to Windy City and set scoring records, and now is likely with the Bulls for the rest of the season. So perhaps that relaxed him.
And there he was where he always has been, with the ball, game on the line. Just never in the NBA. Hey, he can do that.
Blakeney came up from the left side. Payne was on the right signaling for the ball to make a pass. Blakeney looked over and waved him off. He dribbled a few times letting the clock tick down and then rose into a shot straight on from the top. Evans reached in and got him. Foul! The Bulls trailed 110-109. Three shots. Blakeney made the first, the second went in and out and he calmly downed the third for the 111-110 lead. The Grizzlies inbounded with 1.8 seconds left. Gasol forced a shot going left that was going long when JaMychal Green followed it in. But after the buzzer to end the game; winner for the Blakeney and the Bulls.
"I got the ball with like five seconds to go and I just wanted to make an aggressive play, said Blakeney. "I saw them backing up a little bit, so I loaded up a shot. I am a confident player. I work very hard on my game. I've been working hard my whole life and that's the reason why I am here. So when I'm in the game, there is nothing to be scared of. I just play.
Yes, just like that. What a load of a shot.