Bulls biding their time, except forced into action with Zach LaVine

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Bulls have a type.

Young volume scorer with suspect complementary skills who tore an ACL in February 2017.

The Bulls matched the Kings’ four-year, $78 million offer sheet to Zach LaVine and signed Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40 million deal with a team option.

Great for those players considering their injury histories. Good for Chicago?

LaVine could be worth $78 million over the next four years. The 23-year-old is a talented outside shooter and at least was an electric dunker. Those tools coupled with his age certainly give him a chance.

But he’s so far from that level, I wouldn’t have matched Sacramento’s offer sheet. That would have been a bitter pill to swallow after LaVine was the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade, but throwing good money after bad is a mistake.

LaVine just too rarely puts his athleticism to good use in NBA games. He settles for too many jumpers, especially off the dribble. He doesn’t add anything as a defender or rebounder. Last year was a lost season for him, and while maybe that shouldn’t count too much against him, it certainly wasn’t encouraging.

The Parker signing looks much better. He showed more of an all-around game offensively before getting hurt, and he displayed his defensive potential in last year’s playoffs. He brings more functional talent to the table.

But he was available for less of a commitment because his ACL tear was his second. That’s a scary injury history, though Parker eased fears by showing his bounce after he returned last season.

I’m hardly convinced Parker will be worth $20 million either of the next two seasons. I would have preferred making the trade the Nets did with the Nuggets, absorbing bad contracts to gain draft picks. But even if it wasn’t their best option, the Bulls still helped themselves by betting on Parker. If it doesn’t work, they can drop him in a year.

Chicago’s most important decisions of the offseason weren’t LaVine and Parker, though. The big moves were drafting Wendell Carter Jr. No. 7 and Chandler Hutchison No. 22. Those are just too difficult to evaluate yet.

I was down on Carter before the draft, but I always liked his fit next to Lauri Markkanen. And Carter meaningfully impressed in summer league, reducing concerns about his defensive mobility.

If Carter and Hutchinson hit, they’d nicely complement Markkanen and send the Bulls in the right direction. Maybe even some of Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine come along.

Chicago is still figuring out what it has, and this season will be another year of evaluation and probably losing. Markkanen is the only clear keeper, which means this rebuild is still in its early stages.

The Bulls can swing big in 2019 free agency or continue their slow progress. I’d just rather move forward without LaVine’s deal, but even that could work out.

Offseason grade: C-

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.