Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Anatomy of a game winner

Taking a closer look at last night's game winning lob from Gasol to Butler

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By Sam Smith | 12.31.2015 | 10:20 a.m.

Jimmy Butler’s tip in finish of Pau Gasol’s lob pass for the Bulls 102-100 overtime victory over the Indiana Pacers Wednesday was a classic winner, perhaps as good as you’ll see. It demonstrated on the surface amazing skill, dexterity and ability for Gasol to hang the ball up to just the right spot against one of the best defenders in the NBA and for Butler to jump high enough and control it long enough for the ball to float in.

If that play occurred in a playoff game, it probably would be talked about and shown over and over for years. It demonstrated on one level the phenomenal skill of NBA players. The talent to make that play comes only with the greatest athletes in the world.

But there also are numerous split second decisions by the players, their minds working as fast as microchips to record the spacing, the circumstances, the probabilities and the liabilities, and then to complete such a sequence to win a game.

Here’s how it happened:

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg imagines the first option, a fairly simple inbounds pass from Doug McDermott to Butler. And why not? Butler had scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to enable the Bulls to send the game to overtime and was the hot player after a slow start.

That play broke down almost immediately. There are options, but with 3.7 seconds left to start the play there’s not a long mental checklist to examine. It’s now instinct and a mind accustomed to the angles of the game.

The play started with McDermott on the right wing inbounding. Gasol was at the top of the key in the middle of the floor. Nikola Mirotic, another long distance shooter, was on the left wing. Aaron Brooks, who led the Bulls with 29 points and four of seven threes, was in the left corner. But there was little time beyond the Gasol/Butler action.

Butler was along the free throw lane on the left side.

He was supposed to come over a Gasol screen to the ball and make a move or shot.

But the Pacers are a good defensive team. Lavoy Allen held up Butler as Gasol tried to set the screen by switching to Butler. Now Butler was running toward McDermott—and remember the Bulls lost a late chance to tie Dallas on an inbounds violation—to get the ball for a play with Paul George in pursuit. McDermott saw George overplaying Butler in the passing lane to go for the steal. Instead, McDermott turned to Gasol, who had now come out of the lane where he was to set the screen and back on top of the key above the free throw line.

“I anticipated that Paul George was going to deny him and overplay him, so the inbounds pass was going to be tough directly from Doug,” said Gasol. “So I talked to Doug and said, ‘If they overplay him, deny him. I’m going to be open at the top and then I’m going to make the play.’ Doug was alert because we talked.”

Communication is essential.

But with a high level defender such as George smothering Butler—and Butler had not shot well most of the game—the best option seemed to be a straight on Gasol jump shot from 20 feet. Allen had recovered. But he’s three inches shorter than Gasol and was a few feet off and closing.

But Gasol had seen a shaft of light between George and Butler.

“I was going to shoot it if I didn’t see the opportunity to throw that pass,” said Gasol. “That was a secondary option. I anticipated Paul denying Jimmy. Right when the ball gets inbounded you probably (on defense) relax for that half second. It was enough for Jimmy to have the lead and me to throw that pass and be effective. If they would have taken that away, then I would have had to stick that shot. I saw the opportunity. I wasn’t having a great offensive game or a very sharp shooting night (four of 14). I was aware of that.”

But not so much Butler, who thought once George had thwarted the inbounds pass it was time to go to the basket. But for a rebound.

“My thing was if he shoots the ball I’ve got to try to go get the offensive rebound,” said Butler. “I was going to jump either way and hope the ball came my way if it was an offensive rebound. People have got to guard Pau. If Pau is open, Pau’s going to shoot it. Not only is he going to shoot it, he’s probably going to make it.”

George had inside position on Butler as Butler made that backdoor cut that has been so successful for the Bulls this season. Though it’s not usually guarded as tightly as it was this time. Butler had barely an inch above George, who has at least two inches of height on Butler and is just as big a leaper.

Gasol put the ball in perhaps the only spot where Butler could get it, and hardly enough to catch it given George’s proximity.

“Pau is an incredible passer,” said Butler. “He put the ball where only I could get it.”

“I was hoping he would catch it and dunk it, but a tip in worked just fine,” said Gasol. “I’m glad he was able to control the ball the way he did. It was going to be hard for Paul to jump that way and intercept the pass. So I’m glad Jimmy got up there and controlled his body and the tip. (I could see) Paul was in a more difficult position for him to jump and intercept that pass or deflect it.”

“Just how I drew it up,” laughed Hoiberg.