Bill Baptist/NBAE

Bulls comeback seals important win in Houston

103-100 victory pulls Bulls to within a game of a playoff spot

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By Sam Smith | 4.1.2016 | 8:10 p.m.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, mothers and fathers, fans and doubters, step right up. Come closer, you won’t believe your eyes. Yes, we’ve got ourselves a playoff race here.

It may not be the greatest show on Earth, but there aren’t clowns running around anymore.

“There is a lot more fight out of our guys,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

The Bulls? Yes, those Bulls.

How about some entertainment?

It was obvious Thursday, perhaps surprising given the recent events if also welcome, as the Bulls came back from 14 points behind in the third quarter and then nine points behind with about 10 minutes left to stun the Houston Rockets 103-100.

It was a shaky ending as the Rockets, trailing 99-91 with 45.2 seconds left, took advantage of some Bulls miscues to have a chance to tie with a Trevor Ariza three at the buzzer. It went long and suddenly not only are the Bulls back in the playoff race a game behind eighth place Indiana, but a team counted out and looking like it was down for the count played two of its best and toughest road games of the season in playoff atmospheres in Indiana and Houston and came out with gritty, no-quit wins.

“It is a huge difference,” said Nikola Mirotic with another big game, 28 points with five of 10 three pointers. “You see the games we lost back to back to New York and Orlando. We played with low energy. Basically when they got a lead we gave up. Look at the difference today. They got a lead 14 points; we don’t give up, we fight. We played much better defense in the fourth quarter; we find some hot guys, Jimmy (Butler) and E’Twaun (Moore) in the fourth quarter, and that is how we should play because we know every game is important right now. Sometimes you need to find differently how to win the games; now I am seeing much more focus.”

And a terrific win that perhaps can carry forward with Detroit in the United Center Saturday.

The Bulls were without Taj Gibson, who revealed he had a fractured rib he’d been playing with for perhaps weeks. Derrick Rose with a hyperextended elbow started and played 12 minutes, but Hoiberg said as Rose tried to come back for the second half Hoiberg told him to sit given he could use just one arm. Bobby Portis started for Gibson and had one basket and Mike Dunleavy had one free throw in about nine minutes. The five starters combined for three fourth quarter points in the comeback.

Instead, it was Cristiano Felicio with game changing physical play to open the fourth quarter, Justin Holiday leading the Bulls with eight fourth quarter points, Mirotic with seven and Doug McDermott with big defensive rebounds, six in the fourth quarter to lead both teams.

“Without question the competitive edge is there,” said Pau Gasol, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. “The desire of giving ourselves a chance, it’s present. It has been present for the last two, three games. The Atlanta game, I thought, we also fought and competed and we fell short. Three previous games were the opposite. See if we can continue. We have seven games left and we’ve got to give everything we have in each and every one.

“All you can ask for is the guys who are on the floor give everything they’ve got, compete and play hard and try to do the right thing,” said Gasol. “If you have that you have a chance, especially when you have a certain level of talent. We can’t replace something that Tex Winter used to say, ‘There’s no substitute for hustle.’ You have to hustle out there, you have to play together and compete and that’s something that we’ve been insistent with throughout the year.”

And if it doesn’t show up until spring, well, maybe it isn’t too late.

With Indiana losing at home to Orlando, the Bulls at 38-37 moved one game behind the Pacers and own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The mystifying Rockets fell to 37-39 despite three players, led by James Harden with 24 points, scoring at least 20. But the Bulls centers outplayed Dwight Howard, who had seven points and 13 rebounds as Felicio added five points, four rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes.

The Bulls also got 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists from Jimmy Butler in his best game since returning from knee issues. Butler mostly ran the offense in the second half with Rose out and Moore still on a playing time restriction from his hamstring injury. Butler showed more bounce than he had in two months with a driving hammer dunk late in the first half and a fourth quarter dunk on a Gasol bounce pass that put the exclamation point on 16-5 Bulls run for a 94-91 lead with 2:08 left. Butler was called for the rare technical foul for hanging on the rim, though Harden missed the free throw.

“They’ve been big (these last two games),” Butler said. “I think they’ve given us confidence moving forward. I think all the guys want to win, of course; we are all in this together. Hopefully this will be a consistent streak. Win the rest of these games and find us in, I don’t know, seventh, eighth, sixth, whatever it may be.”

Though it was almost back out even as Moore with a savvy all around game and defending Harden late made a three with 1:30 left that sent the fans streaming toward the exits and a 97-91 Bulls lead.

Patrick Beverley then missed defended well by McDermott as Hoiberg had a mad scientists round of late lineups that worked well. McDermott, often derided for his defensive play, was a rock on the boards after the Bulls earlier had been losing second shots. But then Butler held onto the ball too long for the team’s third 24-second violation turnover in about five minutes. Though Butler did a good job running the offense in the second half, he still gets stuck with the ball on occasion, giving it up only with a second or two on the clock.

“I’d been very passive (with six first half points),” noted Butler. “My coaches told me, my teammates told me. So I just came out in the second half and I got to actually help us win a game and I think tonight was that night. Those were careless turnovers; I think both were on me. It’s all about next possession; mistakes happen. Put it behind you. We won, so we feel good about that.”

But it got close to not being so.

Jason Terry missed a three with 46.9 seconds left and McDermott was fouled and made both for a 99-91 lead with 45.2 seconds left. Over? Who said it’s over!

McDermott grabbed the rebound and trying to get space was called for an offensive foul. Ariza then was fouled by Mirotic on a three, and Ariza made all three free throws to get within 99-94 with 31.4 seconds left.

The Bulls then called timeout with Mirotic trapped in the backcourt for a near-turnover. Dunleavy was substituted in, was fouled and made one of two: 100-94 Bulls with 22.7 seconds left. Geez, can’t blow that. Or can you?

“I thought they did a good job pressuring us (down the stretch),” said Hoiberg. “We were hoping to make a few more passes to run out the shot clock; it was not good there in the fourth quarter. Obviously didn’t finish the game off the way we wanted.”

The Rockets are one of the most prolific three point shooting teams, and the desperation seemed to alert them to the possibilities.

Beverley got up a quick three to cut the Bulls lead to 100-97 with 17.5 seconds. Suddenly, plenty of time to make this one the one to look back on as the last dance.

The Rockets were in foul mode and found Mirotic, who continued to be clutch and made both free throws.

“I’m trying to prepare better before games, think what I need to do, what the team needs from me,” said Mirotic, coming off 28 against Indiana. “I am feeling much better, shooting the ball well. I need to try to find a way to keep playing at this level much more games because I know my team needs me. So I am doing everything I need to do to play hard, help my team on defense; they are trusting me on offense, giving me the ball.”

It was 102-97 Bulls with 16.6 seconds left.

Harden came down and made a tough three well guarded with 10.5 seconds left to get Houston within 102-100. Two more free throws. The Bulls got one.

Holiday missed the second with 9.6 seconds left, Harden rebounded and off the Rockets went searching out the three to tie. The Bulls initially did a good job protecting the line, but the Rockets kept moving. It did get the clock going to a second when they found Ariza open in the right short corner. He’d already made three on the night. He would not get a fourth and the Bulls got the win that at least gives them a chance to keep the season interesting.

“We showed a lot of heart,” said McDermott. “We know what’s on the line. We were fighting to the end; made it a little interesting in the final seconds, but it was a really good team win. Both teams were hungry; it felt like a playoff game, each possession valued, physical. We did a good job for the most part closing it out.”

Because they did win.

And now a game to make up in seven doesn’t sound so daunting.

Though it seemed like it would be with word Gibson wouldn’t play and Rose, who would have the first scoreless game of his career, unable to do much of anything. He had his left arm close to his body as if it were in a sling and couldn’t even attempt a shot in 12 first half minutes. When he was ready to start the second half, Hoiberg stepped in.

Previous X-rays were negative. Hoiberg said they have not decided if an MRI is necessary.

“Tried to give it my all, but sore,” said Rose. “(I’ll) try to get back on the court as quick as possible, get treatment and see where it goes. Not being able to extend my arm.”

Rose was among those engaged on a lively Bulls bench down the stretch and was effusive about the team afterward.

“Huge, huge, huge,” he repeated in the locker room. “Our fight. We fought our way back; we didn’t hang our heads even when they went up. The guys who came in came in and did their jobs, so it was a big win.”

It didn’t start out looking very good with a 13-4 Rockets lead, and then again 14-2 to start the second half that led to that 73-59 Rockets lead with 4:50 left in the third quarter. A week ago those type runs were turning into 20-point losses. And to lesser teams. There was a team meeting in between, though no one points to that as much as a determination to finish the season correctly.

“Found a way to hold on on the road, down nine in the fourth quarter, and finding a way to pull out the win was a pretty gutty effort by our guys,” said Hoiberg. “Obviously it’s huge. We had two really tough stretches. I thought the beginning of the game when they jumped out to a double digit lead and the beginning of the third quarter when they got control after being tied (52-52 at halftime). The great thing was we kept fighting as opposed to putting our heads down and found a way to regain control, to get up eight after being down nine. Great effort by our guys.”

There was some fun along the way, a behind the back, over the head Gasol pass to Mirotic on the way to a 24-24 tie after one quarter. The Spanish national teammates often show a clever chemistry.

“Two great games back to back from Niko,” agreed Gasol “He is looking for consistency, looking to be able to produce and perform on a consistent basis at this level. I see him playing aggressive, confidently and shooting the ball well.”

Mirotic then kept the Bulls in the game with four second quarter three pointers and 14 of the Bulls 28 points of the quarter to keep the game tied. The Rockets exploded to start the second half, but the Bulls didn’t give in. Gasol had a running hook shot, a rarity in the NBA these days, and Butler had 13 points in the third quarter, a rarity as well in his play of late, but crucial. And then the Bulls got control with a 16-6 start to the fourth quarter with an eclectic lineup of Moore, McDermott, Felicio, Holiday and Mirotic outplaying the likes of Harden, Terry, Michael Beasley and Howard.

“Really big minutes for Cris (Felicio),” said Hoiberg “I really thought he changed the dynamic of the game. He did it against Indiana, the great defensive play on Paul George at the end of the third quarter and carried that to the fourth and did the same tonight. He plays with so much energy. Moves, goes after every ball, rebounds, goes straight up on defense with that size. I hope this is something we can build off. Obviously have a big one Saturday against Detroit. It’s going to take a heck of an effort. No time to be satisfied.”

But at least an occasion to believe they can keep going. It may be a bumpy ride, but it looks like it could be fun and games again.