The Bulls have never seen a center like this. Not from Len Chapell in that opener in 1966 through even first team all-NBA 2014 center Noah. Not Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore. No big man has ever put on a Bulls uniform with Pau Gasol’s range of skills from shooting, handling the ball, passing, shot blocking and rebounding.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

Bulls endure in Indiana

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

By Sam Smith | 12.30.2014 | 2:45 a.m. CT

Derrick, Derrick, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, Jo can.

Jo, Jo, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, Taj can.

Taj, Taj, he’s our man, if he can’t do it…

Well, Pau and Jimmy did this time in the end.

“We definitely have a lot of weapons offensively that can deliver,” Pau Gasol was saying Monday after the Bulls go way ahead/come from behind 92-90 victory over the Indiana Pacers. “That’s one of the strengths and the beauty of our team.”

Maybe call it strong the way they played most of the game. And then call it beautiful the way Gasol with 20 points made the basketball play, drawing a double team and finding Butler with a game high 27 points on the right wing for a three pointer to give the Bulls what would prove a decisive 92-90 lead with 1:07 left.

Butler then hustled back and drew an offensive foul against Chris Copeland, who led a Pacers’ fourth quarter 20-0 run that gave Indiana an 88-85 lead with 2:35 remaining. Butler then missed a jumper in a game in which he shot just eight of 20, but had nine rebounds, four steals and nine of 12 from the free throw line after getting another league award, Eastern Conference Player of the Week. That after winning the East’s monthly award for November.

C.J. (Crooked Jumper) Watson then missed the first of two open corner threes he would have in the last 30 seconds. Rose had a jumper spin three times around the rim and come out with two seconds left and the Bulls still ahead by two. But the Pacers failed to immediately call time out, leaving just .05 for a last shot. Watson would come open in the same left corner spot unguarded and barely reach the rim on a short arm attempt at a winner.

So it was the Bulls’ seventh straight win and 10 of 11 to reach 22-9 for the season and a league best 14-4 on the road. The Bulls are now home for nine of their next 11.

“Probably a good word, survived,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in a game he probably secretly loved. “The first three quarters I thought we played really well. Obviously we didn’t close out the game the way we would have liked. The lesson we learned is you have to keep playing. No lead is safe in this league. It’s funny you always hear, ‘You’re up 10, get those guys out of there.’ Not in this league. I thought Pau made some really big plays down the stretch. The play to Jimmy was a terrific play. Of course, Jimmy making the shot, but Pau making the right play when the second defender came.

“(Butler is) a two way player,” added Thibodeau. “He’s as good as it gets in the league as far as playing both sides of the ball. He made a big shot; he’s onto the next play. That’s what makes him so special. Things not going our way to have the presence of mind we’re going to play through Pau and then to be aware, get himself ready to shoot and Pau making that play; it’s huge. He’s (Butler) a primary scorer. You have Derrick (Rose), you have Jimmy, you have Pau. All those guys are terrific. Joakim (Noah) can facilitate and he’s a great offensive rebounder. There’s always someone who is going to have a good game going and we have good options to close. We know Taj (Gibson) can close a game, Aaron (Brooks) can close a game. We have options we can go to.”

It’s why this Bulls team has the potential for the greatness they are quietly pursuing.

But it’s also coming in great part to the elite status that Butler has pursued.

Virtually ceded the league’s Most Improved Player award, Butler now is getting into unspoken territory in the league’s Most Valuable Player award conversation. Following the game, ESPN statistics made a league MVP case for Butler:

  • League leader in minutes played per game and miles traveled per game in the new NBA tracking of three miles per game on the court;
  • Averaging 22.2 per game, one of four players averaging at least 22 points, six rebounds and three assists with his 20th game of at least 20 points this season after nine combined his first three seasons.
  • Bulls averaging 108 with Butler on floor and 101.9 when he is not and second in the league to James Harden, the early league MVP favorite, in percentage of points from the free throw line;
  • Butler limits opponents he defends to 37.5 percent shooting and forces a turnover on 16 percent of his plays, tied for sixth;
  • No. 1 in the Eastern Conference in Win Shares, a statistic devised by the statistical site Basketball-Reference to assess overall player value. Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Damien Lillard are the only players ahead of Butler.

Though Butler is gregarious and outspoken with teammates, he prefers the John Wayne western strong silent type with media. Sort of the, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, eh pilgrim?”

“I thought they started playing harder than we did on both ends of the floor and we can’t let that happen,” Butler said of a most unlikely Pacers’ comeback in which the Indiana starters played a combined 1:40 in the fourth quarter. “I’m confident in my game and so are my teammates. I feel like it’s my job to step up and take and make shots late. That’s what a starting two guard is supposed to do. Derrick is always getting on me to shoot and to shoot threes and to be aggressive. Pau made a great pass on that last shot. That’s what he does. Jo called it before we ran the play. He said, ‘Look at Jimmy, Jimmy’s been open every time.’ That’s an example of the confidence.”

And so it was for Butler at the big moment even though he repeatedly talked about how Copeland outplayed him in the fourth quarter. Good, don’t get too cocky. And coaches love those kinds of games, even with a loss. It becomes a, ‘See, that’s what I was telling you’ moment.

It became that after the Bulls basically dominated the game after an early Pacers 17-16 lead. It was 22-17 after the first quarter and growing from there, even if it was what’s becoming a rare off game for the Bulls reserves.

Indiana’s, of course, played more minutes given they stayed in throughout the fourth. But there wasn’t any magic in Brooks’ shot Monday as Kirk Hinrich sat out a fourth straight game but seems close to a return from a hamstring injury. Nikola Mirotic had five points, but played only about 10 minutes as he had a tough time with veteran Luis Scola. So Thibodeau rushed the starters back earlier in the fourth quarter against the Pacers barrage of scoring in their first 10 possessions.

“I don’t think you can be conservative when you have a lead; you have to play,” said Thibodeau. “You have to get the ball up the floor quickly. Maybe we got a little too conservative tonight and you can’t play like that. We have to be in an attack mode. The way the third quarter ended, (Scola scoring and it started to get to 14, 13, 12 and they are thinking, ‘There is hope.’ Get it inside 10 and you are fighting for your life. We were fortunate in the end to win.”

Even though Thibodeau got the starters back in, the turnaround was dramatic as the Pacers cut an 83-66 deficit to an 83-82 lead in four minutes.

Good practice for a playoff game, eh?

It hardly looked like anything similar was possible the way the Bulls began pulling away in the second quarter.

Gibson had some early success and then Rose in the second quarter teamed with Butler for a three and then Gasol pitched out for a Rose three. Rose finished with 17 points, but was just five for 20 with several shots going in and out. He had a team high six assists and tied with Mike Dunleavy for high with two blocks. Dunleavy also led the team with 10 rebounds as a further indication of the varied and unexpected contributions the team has been getting up and down the roster.

Mirotic did have a rainbow step back three midway through the second quarter and then Butler closed the half for a 47-35 Bulls lead with a steal and full court run for a dunk just before the halftime buzzer, a superhero-like leap from in front of the free throw line to just make the deadline.

“That’s what this team is all about,” said Butler. “Everyone can make plays through the whole game because we are a very deep team. We have a lot of different weapons on both ends of the floor. It’s a game of runs; stay calm, stay poised and when your time comes make the big ones.”

The Bulls looked like they’d stroll home with four of the five starters each scoring eight points in the third quarter for a late 75-54 lead on a Dunleavy driving reverse for a three-point play. Earlier, Rose hit on a pull up and a drive and was fouled, making all four free throws. Rose and then Brooks found Gasol in pick and pop actions as Gasol constantly stepped back for jumpers with Indiana’s big men not able to chase him outside. It likely was why Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel went with a small fourth quarter lineup of reserves that seemed to catch the Bulls overconfident, almost as if they didn’t think they’d have to adjust.

The Pacers finally began to show some aggression late in the third with an 8-4 run to close the quarter. The Bulls with an 81-65 lead seemed safely ahead. But Copeland with 13 of his 17 points in the fourth did a terrific job against Butler. The former Knick also took advantage of mismatches when Thibodeau tried to steal a few minutes rest for Butler. It all seemed to happen so quickly the Bulls failed to respond to the Pacers playing so small and continued to shoot jump shots. It would be your classic two for 21 Bulls shooting fourth quarter. And that’s counting Butler’s three. Gasol with a postup fadeaway to bring the Bulls within 86-85 with 3:27 left was the Bulls only other field goal of the quarter.

Oh, right. Pau. Hey, the Bulls had a guy in the game about six inches taller than anyone from the Pacers. Anyone want to try to throw him the ball?

The Bulls have never seen a center like this. Not from Len Chapell in that opener in 1966 through even first team all-NBA 2014 center Noah. Not Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore. No big man has ever put on a Bulls uniform with Gasol’s range of skills from shooting, handling the ball, passing, shot blocking and rebounding.

The Pacers would get some amazing shots to go, like a well defended three from C.J. Miles. The Bulls also began to aim their shots a bit, like Butler sort of trying to wish one in with body English after that Miles three. Rose then tried his own fourth quarter save and air balled a three. Copeland made a falling down three with Butler in his face and suddenly it was a three-point game (one possession if you were watching TV) with more than seven minutes.

Indiana ran off six more as there were no Rose saves this time and Thibodeau was trying to win it with defense with Noah and Gibson still in the game. Noah couldn’t finish a slick pick and roll pass from Rose and then Lavoy Allen outran Noah for a layup and foul. The Bulls lost the missed free throw as Thibodeau got did get Gasol back in. But Scola made a jumper to make it 20-0. The Bulls would get their run to zero for 17 field goals with a few more errant jumpers. Butler made a steal in that stretch, but he ran into an offensive foul. Though he did have a block on a Copeland drive. The Bulls would be fortunate the Pacers continued to shoot jumpers and finally missed.

And then the Bulls realized, ‘Hey, Pau’s with us.”

They finally found Gasol in the post for that short jumper to get within one. And then would come Pau deep after another Allen jumper. That one gave Indiana its last lead at 90-89 with 1:24 left.

Gasol began to work inside. Copeland dropped off Butler, and Gasol spotted Butler immediately.

“I was trying to get to the post,” said Gasol who sometimes has that wink in his words. “I got the ball, finally, and I was able to make a move toward the baseline. When they came and doubled me I spun back to the middle and saw Jimmy doing a good job moving without the ball, spotting up at the three point line and I got him the ball.

“We’re just trying to do the right things on the floor and keep on winning,” said Gasol, “keep this thing going and get better as we go along. We cannot relax. Just got to keep doing what we are doing, do what we are supposed to do and keep winning.”

Pau, Pau, he’s our man…