Undefeated Bulls play for Summer League Championship

You don’t want to be a player for the Minnesota Timberwolves summer league team. Figure they’re looking at a five-hour practice before Monday night’s championship game finale.

That game is against the Bulls, the former team of Timberwolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau, of course, is not coaching the summer ‘wolves.

But what delicious drama and bonus entertainment for the conclusion of the NBA summer leagues as the Bulls’ boys of summer play Thibs’ guys.

The Bulls reached the championship game of the summer league tournament format Sunday with an 85-79 comeback victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls remained undefeated at 6-0 and denied at least the baby Cavs a back to back finals.

The Bulls, who trailed by as much as a dozen in the second half and by six with fewer than six minutes remaining, were led by Cristiano Felicio with 18 points and six rebounds and Bobby Portis with 16 points and nine rebounds. Denzel Valentine had 13 points and eight rebounds and made a pair of big threes in the second half, shooting three of eight overall from long distance.

It’s resulted in a productive summer league for that trio, who have excelled for a Bulls team that has defended aggressively under summer league coach, assistant Pete Myers.

It was the defense again Sunday that rallied the Bulls, a 16-7 run to open the second half bringing the Bulls within 53-52 with 4:15 in the third after the Bulls trailed by 10 at halftime. The teams then traded leads—there were 12 lead changes and six ties—until 2:24 left in the game when Valentine made a three for a 76-75 Bulls lead in the exciting, if not memorable, game. The Bulls then pulled away making free throws after a Jerian Grant jumper and Felicio layup.

Portis has been the Bulls leading scorer and leader in this summer league tournament. He’s averaging 15.8 points, which is 22nd overall, along with 9.3 rebounds, which ranks fourth overall. But he’s been aggressive and enthusiastic and even added a three-pointer in Sunday’s win. Perhaps the larger question for the Bulls going forward is how they could keep him out of the lineup and where he will play.

There is the qualifier that it is summer league, and the competition isn’t quite uniform NBA level. But Portis’ activity and energy has been contagious as he’s been a relentless competitor.

Felicio has alternated good games, and was adept Sunday rolling to the basket and finishing with Valentine supplying excellent passing. Valentine has demonstrated a consistently mature feel for the game that transcended his teammates. He’s generally played as the best point guard on the team even though it’s not his natural position. It’s conceivable with his confidence, ball handling and passing he could be a backup point guard.

Valentine also rebounds well and often was a one-man fast break in transition.

The teams traded the lead back and forth early with impressive hustle from the Bulls’ kids. On one play, Felicio missed on a roll, retrieved his own rebound, dribbled out and when the Cavs chased him he turned and drove for a three-point play. Both he and Portis had four offensive rebounds.

The Bulls defense has been generally more aggressive with the big men coming out to help on the pick and roll and the guards being asked to get into the bodies of their opponents. The Cavs’ kids shot threes well early, but the Bulls’ defensive pressure seemed to wear on them after halftime as the Bulls committed just seven turnovers to 17 for the Cavs. Playing 36 of the 40 minutes and with the ball in his hands often, Valentine had just one turnover.

The Cavs shot themselves into the double digit halftime lead with early three pointers.

After the Cavs took a 12-point lead early in the third quarter, the Bulls got within 59-57 after three quarters and tied it at 59 on four straight Grant free throws. Back to back Portis and Valentine driving scores and then a Spencer Dinwiddie finger roll and three kept the Bulls close enough for the defense to throttle the Cavs down the stretch. The Bulls again shot below 40 percent, but their second chances, defense and inside play were determinant.

Valentine for the tournament is averaging 12.3 points and 6.5 rebounds, Felicio 11.3 points and six rebounds and Grant 10.8 points and 3.7 assists.

Now it’s Minnesota, and if not championship rings, at least they do all get extra per diem for the stay.

The Bulls probably won’t see top Timberwolves rookie Kris Dunn, who hasn’t played since suffering a concussion earlier in summer league. He was averaging 24 points at the time. But Minnesota guard Tyus Jones already was named tournament MVP as he had 29 points Sunday to get the Timberwolves into the title game.

There’ll be much made of the Bulls/Timberwolves matchups this season with Thibodeau back coaching. Thibodeau and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg will be watching from the stands Monday as assistants run summer league. But it would be no surprise if the Timberwolves players Monday morning wake up to 250-page scouting reports on every play the Bulls run with every option and the appropriate counters for each. Hey, who said summer league doesn’t matter and can’t be a lot of fun?