Bulls guard Denzel Valentine was kicking himself for blowing the game after his errant inbounds pass with eight seconds left turned into a Joel Embiid steal, two free throws for Ben Simmons with 5.6 seconds left and a 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night at the United Center.
“I made a huge mistake that cost us the ball game. I take full responsiblity for it,” Valentine said. “There have been like 10 or 11 times I’ve taken the ball out at the end of the game and I’ve completed the pass. I thought he [Zach LaVine] was open. But Embiid just made a heluva play on the ball. I probably should have called time out. I’m definitely going to be thinking about that later on. I’ve got to be much smarter. I’ve just got to live and learn.”
It shouldn’t take the Bulls or Valentine too long to get over it. The Bulls did everything but win Thursday night and came out feeling pretty good about themselves. Bobby Portis scored a career-high 38 points and was the emotional catalyst for a recovery from an 18-point first-quarter deficit. David Nwaba, starting for Justin Holiday, took his aggressive game to another level with a career-high 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and team-high nine rebounds. LaVine added 23 points and hit 5-of-7 three-point shots.
That’s the beauty of picking a lane and going all-in on a rebuild. The Bulls absolutely blew it — they led 115-10 with 40 seconds to play and lost. Leading 115-112, They intentionally fouled J.J. Redick with eight secnds left to avoid a tying three-pointer. Redick hit the free throws and Valentine’s miscue on the ensuing inbounds led to disaster.
But all the Bulls did was play well and lose. In another era this game would have haunted the Bulls for a month. But in full-rebuild mode, even coach Fred Hoiberg acknowledged the positives outweighed the negatives.
“I couldn’t be happier the way we played and competed,” Hoiberg said. “We dig ourselves an 18-point hole [down 25-7 in the first 5:17 of the game] and fight all the way back and have complete control of the game.
“A lot of guys played well. Bobby was unbelievable tonight. We had a lot of great performances — David Nwaba really took advantage of getting back in the starting lineup. … A lot of really good performances from guys that we wanted to see out there and got increased minutes. But the last play, we’ve got to execute. We have not had an issue with it all year. Philly made a good play.”
Against a 76ers team that has won six straight and has difference-making top-3 draft picks that Bulls lack, the Bulls were the better team. Simmons, the top pick in the 2016 draft, scored 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting and had 11 assists. Embiid, the No. 3 pick of the 2014 draft, was all over the floor and fell into the courtside seats at least twice and added 30 points on 11-of-17 shooting, with 13 rebounds.
“Joel and Ben carried us. I thought everybody else really had some subpar performances,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
The Bulls overcame their own subpar performances Lauri Markkanen scored three points on 1-of-8 shooting, 0-of-5 on three-pointers. Kris Dunn scored fie points on 2-of-11 shooting.
But all in all, not a bad night. The lineup changes that signaled a priority of development over victories seemed to energize the team.
“We’re not tanking. That’s not our goal, to tank,” Valentine said. “Our goal is to get better every game — just show growth and compete and whatever happens, happens. It just sucks that we lose this game.”
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