The Bulls, who would go on to win 108-100, raced down the floor with Cameron Payne finding Denzel Valentine for a wide open 3-pointer in the corner. Valentine got the ball and launched a shot that missed badly as Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. came racing off the corner of the bench after seeing his team had only four players on the floor. The Mavericks were assessed a technical for the mishap with Smith charging onto the court like a confused young hooper at a YMCA game. After missing the open look with only four defenders on the floor, Valentine stepped to the line and promptly missed the technical free throw. It was a comedy of errors in a night full of them between two teams playing for the hope of a better future.
"I'm not exactly sure," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of the bizarre technical foul. "But with the substitution rules -- Dennis thought he had been subbed in for, but he hadn't. So he ran back, but they said it was too late. At least that's my understanding. That's not why we lost."
The reason the Mavericks lost is because Bulls forward Bobby Portis had another big night off the bench, scoring 22 points and pulling down five rebounds in 34 minutes. Led by Portis, the Bulls outscored the Mavericks 49-27 in the final 17:55 of regulation to steal a win that much of their fan base would rather they lose in the battle for draft lottery pingpong ball supremacy. The fact that Portis, who was suspended for the first eight games of the season after knocking out former teammate Nikola Mirotic in practice, continues playing the best basketball of his career only reinforces how truly strange the entire season has been for a rebuilding Bulls team.
"I think with Bobby, it's all about confidence," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He's not shying away from anything. He's not shying away from his shot certainly. Sometimes when he gets in that rhythm, he gets in that zone, it's fun to watch him ... it's great to have Bobby. He plays with such a swagger and a confidence. He brings that energy every time he steps on the floor and we need it."
Portis has rebuilt both his body, and his image, with his improved play this season and is having more fun on the floor than at any other point in his career. Hoiberg said after the game that Portis would be inserted into the starting lineup over the next few games as the Bulls continue tinkering with their lineups for the future.
"It will be a little different," Portis said of the change. "But I adjust pretty well to new circumstances. ... I'm just going to go out there and be the same player I am, try to play consistent, play the game the right way."
As a group, that's what the Bulls seem to be intent on doing during the final 20 games of the season. The players and coaches have pushed off talk of tanking at every turn and the front office knows full well just how costly it can be if the league feels a team is trying too hard to lose, as evidenced by the $600,000 fine leveled on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently for his recent comments about losing games.
"It's hard to tell a competitive athlete to go out there and lose and be OK with losing," Bulls shooting guard Zach LaVine said. "Because that doesn't make any sense, especially for me. It's good. We're trying to win games and we have to get better, we have to be competitive and we let the chips fall where they were. As long as we go out there and play hard and do what we have to do, we'll be in a good situation."
As frustrated as some players and coaches are with the talk of tanking, Bulls point guard Kris Dunn acknowledged that he doesn't care much about the chatter at all.
"We know what we're trying to do in the locker room," Dunn said. "We're going out there trying to win, build a winning culture here. We're trying to get it back. Whoever says that [about tanking] that's for them. I don't get into that."
What Dunn and the Bulls are into is hoping their new core comes together down the stretch of a lost season. For Bulls fans hoping their team would lose, solace can be taken in the fact that Dunn, LaVine, Portis and rookie Lauri Markkanen were the ones who helped pull out the win. They're the ones who are going to be expected to do that a lot more in the future.
"It was really good," Dunn said. "I think today was just a little glimpse of what we can do in the future for the Chicago Bulls. It's going to take time, it's not easy, especially when you have three highly talented players and you have another one with Bobby, that's four highly talented players. It's not going to be easy I think through time we will figure it out."