By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — Thursday brought an evening that, when viewed through the big-picture lens, went perfectly to script for the lineup-tweaking Bulls as they enter a new phase of their rebuild.
Some key youngsters showed progress in increased roles, as Bobby Portis (38 points) and David Nwaba (21 points) set new career-highs in scoring.
Coach Fred Hoiberg’s system was at at full-throttle operation, with Chicago hitting a franchise record-tying 18 3-pointers.
Zach LaVine flourished again, with 23 points on a pretty efficient 7-of-16 shooting night, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers.
And a loss to help the draft lottery odds? Yes, though you had to see the final minute to believe the Bulls’ 116-115 setback to the 76ers at the United Center, a contest that featured them blowing a five-point lead inside of 40 seconds.
None of which is to say Denzel Valentine, the goat of the night, was being any easier on himself.
“I’m a man,” Valentine said. “I can take full responsibility for it.”
Valentine was ruing his performance and decisions in crunch time. Up 115-110, the Bulls watched as a Ben Simmons layup cut their lead to three with 35 seconds left. After an empty Bulls possession, Hoiberg wanted his team to foul on the inbounds and not let the 76ers shoot a tying 3-pointer. Valentine had a chance to do so on Simmons, a poor free-throw shooter at 56.5 percent, but instead let the ball get kicked out to J.J. Redick, who then made two free throws.
Then came Valentine’s biggest mistake. With the Bulls leading 115-114 with 8.0 seconds left, he was tasked with inbounding at half-court out of a timeout. He looked left, only to find Lauri Markkanen and Portis covered. He looked back right to see LaVine streaking but didn’t account for the closing speed and length of big man Joel Embiid, who came up with the difference-making steal and followed with a pass to Simmons, who was fouled by Valentine and hit two free throws with 5.6 seconds left to win it.
“That was a whole new unit in at the end of the game,” Valentine said, a reference to veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday being benched as the Bulls go young. “Guys were discombobulated. I was discombobulated. I thought I could make a pass, and obviously it didn’t go through.
“Embiid made a heckuva play. I just got to live and learn. I made a huge mistake. I take full responsibility for it. Had I called a timeout, we could’ve drawn a new play up and executed that. I just got to learn from this.”
The Bulls had a timeout left, which left Valentine kicking himself even more.
“Whoever wants to put the blame on me, I’ll take it,” Valentine said. “I know it won’t happen again if I get put in that position next time.”
The Bulls had one final chance to win in the final seconds, but Portis missed a 6-footer near the hoop and Valentine’s putback from 10 feet missed as well. Markkanen dunked the ball home about a full second after the horn to no avail.
“We played well enough to win the game,” Valentine said. “We just got to be smarter. We made a lot of young mistakes toward the end of the game and decisions, especially mine. I definitely should’ve called a timeout. I’m going to be thinking about that later on and wanting to get that back.”
Hoiberg called Portis’ play “unbelievable.” He thought Nwaba was “excellent.” He remained enthused about the effort of the Bulls (20-38), calling it a learning opportunity with “a lot of positives to take from this game.”
“We go out with that type of fighting spirit, we’re going to be fine,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to be in games. We’re going to have a chance.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.