Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls with a 96-86 haircut from the Clippers

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By Sam Smith | 3.01.2015 | 8:52 p.m. CT

One of my favorite Western movies is an 80’s campy film, Silverado, with a lot of stars who were not stars yet. There’s a wonderfully understated scene in which the bad guy sheriff played by Brian Dennehy shows up at the site of a jailbreak where the good guys got away and took out a few more of his corrupt helpers.

Dennehy surveys the scene of a few more of his men gone and observes, “I’m runnin’ out of deputies.”

And so, too, are the Bulls who Sunday in losing to the Los Angeles Clippers 96-86 lost Jimmy Butler early in the second quarter with a hyperextended elbow. He’ll have an MRI Monday to determine if there is further damage, said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Butler joined Derrick Rose, out four to six weeks after his latest knee surgery, and Taj Gibson listed day to day but probably week to week with another sprained ankle. Though still ill, Pau Gasol returned and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he shot two of 13 for four points.

“I want to give Pau a lot of credit,” said Thibodeau. “Pau is sick, very sick. He knows we’re shorthanded; he got out there and gave us everything he had.”

Similarly, Thibodeau said with Kirk Hinrich, first off the bench for the lately slumping Aaron Brooks, who was starting for Rose. Brooks after shooting two of 15 Friday in the win over Minnesota did improve to five of 17 Sunday for 14 points, however little that may be.

Hinrich was zero for seven in 25 minutes and scoreless backing up Brooks, thus a five for 24 at point guard.

“Kirk is battling through injury,” said Thibodeau. “We’re shorthanded and he is giving us what he has.”

Yes, despite all this and DeAndre Jordan with a massive 26 rebounds, 17 in the first half, and Chris Paul with 28 points and 12 assists, the Bulls still trailed just 82-78 with 5:25 left in the game when Thibodeau lifted Joakim Noah. Despite his own season long health issues, Noah had 13 points, 11 rebounds and six assists with nine of 14 at the free throw line. Plus, Noah was working seamlessly with Nikola Mirotic, who had a career high 29 points and 16 of the Bulls’ 17 fourth quarter points.

But Thibodeau said Noah at just under 35 minutes probably was at his allotted playing time.

“We’re trying not to run (Noah’s) minutes straight through,” said Thibodeau. “So we want to give him (what) we’ve been doing all year, to stay where we would like his minutes to be. I like the way Jo’s been playing; that 32-34 minutes is probably the right amount for him.”

It’s difficult to suggest otherwise with Noah’s difficulties following off season knee surgery.

But the offense then without Rose or Noah or Butler, the latter closing Friday’s win at point guard, stopped. The Clippers with the Bulls going to the intentional fouling of Jordan tactic (the Clippers outscored them 7-2 in that stretch) outscored the Bulls 10-4 with Noah out for a 92-82 lead with under two minutes remaining. And this injury-plagued, poor shooting (season low 31 percent) Bulls team wasn’t about to make any sort of surge at that point.

“You’ve just got to find a way to win,” said Thibodeau. “That game was winnable down the stretch and we just didn’t get it done; we didn’t get it done. When your primary scorers are out it’s going to be a struggle. But we’ve got to be able to find a way to win and whatever way that is that’s what we have to do. Whether it’s with our defense and rebounding, whatever it is. That game was hanging in the balance with six minutes to go; we’ve got to find a way to pull that out. Right now there are a lot of moving parts and different combinations, but we’ll figure it out.”

The Bulls fell to 37-23 (18-13 at home), though remained in third in the fading Eastern Conference as the Cavs lost again as well. The Raptors just ahead of the Bulls and the Wizards (Tuesday’s opponent) and the Bucks just behind are both in their biggest slumps of the season. So the Bulls are not about to miss the playoffs or probably fall too far. So what to do at this point?

Obviously, try to get as many players healthy as possible for the playoffs. Which will likely bring out the venerable dilemma of the coach’s desire to win as many games possible for the best playoff positioning and the organization’s long term approach to player well being while trying to have the best group prepared for the most vital part of the season in spring.

“It’s an unforgiving league; you don’t want to feel sorry for yourself,” said Thibodeau. “There are times during the course of the season things are going your way; there are times it is not going your way. The schedule is in your favor, it’s not in your favor. Hopefully, we have a will and determination that can get us past the times when things are tough. We have to be mentally tough right now. We have to fight through some adversity. I think one of the good characteristics of our team is they’ve been through a lot, they know how to fight through things and we’re going to have to continue to fight on. That’s the only thing we can do. Put as much as we can into each and every day and go from there. We have a really good group of guys I know will fight.”

Hard hats and lunch pails?

It’s probably more than that.

Maybe some more Doug McDermott. Or at least some McDermott for a team that has trouble scoring. The kid was the fifth leading scorer in NCAA history passing Larry Bird and a career 46 percent three point shooter. He even shot threes better than fellow former Creighton alum Kyle Korver. Korver told CSN Chicago recently that Jimmy Butler at All-Star break told him that McDermott was “killing it at practice,” and the players all know McDermott can play. Similarly with so many point guard injuries, perhaps seeing more of E’Twaun Moore, who started in Orlando and is in his fourth NBA season.

With Gibson out, Thibodeau went more with Mirotic, who ended up being the Bulls primary offensive option and even scored every Bulls fourth quarter point until Noah made a free throw with 1:14 left and the Bulls trailing 93-82. Mirotic was 11 of 23 and two of seven on three and five of eight with free throws in about 30 minutes for his career high 29.

“It was a tough game for us because we lost,” he said as he’s always talking team first. “I take a lot of shots today; my teammates, they find me in this situation without Derrick, without Taj, without Jimmy. Somebody needs to shoot the ball, so my teammates are trying to find me and I make some tough shots. But I really feel bad because my team lost.

“When you don’t have the most important players on the court we play different, and a lot of those plays they try to find me,” Mirotic noted in his aggressive play seeking out mismatches. “I say we really fight in all the game. What we have to do is find a way to win these games without our best players.

“We should play simple basketball,” added Mirotic. “Trying to play good defense, trying to share the ball and the most important, trying to play hard 48 minutes. Because in this league you cannot play 30 minutes good, 35. Because in 10 minutes they can score, get you in a big difference and it will be really difficult to recover.”

The Bulls competed fiercely and favorably against a Clippers team without Blake Griffin, but still with All-Star Paul and Jordan, whom the Clippers continue to try to make the odd case he should be a league Most Valuable Player. Jordan is leading the league in rebounding and was even one short of his season high with 26 rebounds Sunday. Still, the Bulls were only outrebounded 55-51. And the Clippers are just barely in the top half of the league in defense.

"What he's doing defensively, if he was doing that offensively he would be recognized as the MVP or one of them," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "But because it's defensively no one notices."

Though as Thibodeau noted even with all the injuries and illness and sideways shooting, there still were 11 ties and 14 lead changes. The Clippers led 26-18 after the Bulls were down 11 in the noon national ABC-TV start. Going with Mirotic and Tony Snell, the Bulls edged ahead 34-33 midway through the second. Though that was against a weak Clippers bench. The Clippers led 43-41 at halftime and it was tied at 69 after three. The Bulls were hustling on defense and doing a good job closing on three point shooters. The Clippers were seven of 27 on threes as the Bulls weren’t missing effort.

Snell drove aggressively and began hitting his three in the third quarter while Brooks finally broke out with 10 points of his own in the third. With Mirotic on his own 6-0 run to start the fourth quarter with a high/low pass from Noah and pump fake and driving three-point play, the Bulls took a 76-73 lead with 8:48 remaining.

Until Rose does return, the games all are going to be like this, taffy pull affairs coming down to the last few minutes. The Bulls with much more three-point shooting for the first time perhaps ever could open the game up with some speed. They had just two occasions of pushing the ball in transition and not waiting for play calls, which basically resulted in them being outscored 16-4 in fast breaks.

With players out, it’s obviously difficult to score. So you have to try to get easy baskets. But the Bulls basically stay in this tight offensive set, cautious with the ball and often running the clock down with late shots. It’s the way the Bulls have mostly played the last two seasons without Rose. But they didn’t have as much potential shooting talent as they do now. And Brooks has speed to push the ball. True, you can shoot yourself out of a game playing faster like that with lots of three-point shooting without one scorer to rely upon or get to the free throw line. So Thibodeau works conservatively, trying to stay close like the Bulls did Sunday, and then play enough defense that a few baskets in the last six minutes may be enough.

This time it wasn’t.

Brooks and Hinrich committed turnovers, Brooks couldn’t get up an off balance shot and Mirotic missed a pair of jumpers. Former Bull Jamal Crawford after a scoreless first half on zero for seven—you cannot contain him forever—hit a three and a jumper and Paul added another. Thibodeau then fell victim to not trusting his defense and began fouling the poor free throw shooting Jordan. Jordan made three of six while Paul got fouled in the middle of all that and the Bulls could not score enough to recover.

Rivers has been asked constantly about the intentional fouling tactic. He did say his inclination as a traditionalist is not to make changes, but it does look bad for the game and fans don’t like seeing it. Rivers said the league as a result probably has to make some change.

The Bulls likely do as well.

“I think the most important thing with our team is whenever something happens here we are together and we really try to find a way to get out of this situation,” said Mirotic. “We are going to be fine; I think so.”

One of the good cowboys, Kevin Costner as Jake, says in the final scene we'll be back. The Bulls can only hope Rose, Gibson, Butler and the rest will be.