“When you have (Noah) and Pau out there together, that’s a lot of length,” noted coach Tom Thibodeau. “You throw Niko in there, that’s different, but it’s also length. When we get Taj back that’s more length, and Mike Dunleavy’s long. When you throw Jimmy in at the two we’re big.”
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Bulls grind out a big victory in Memphis

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By Sam Smith | 12.20.2014 | 3:08 a.m. CT

That’s it? That’s all you got? Stopped the Golden State Warriors winning streak at 16 games. Took out the defending champion Spurs in triple overtime on their court. Not bad, but it’s not like you’re facing Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and the rebounding guys.

“Jimmy has been unreal for us this year,” said Joakim Noah of Butler’s 31 points and 10 rebounds Friday in the Bulls 103-97 victory over the now 21-5 Memphis Grizzlies. “I don’t even know what to say. I remember him working out in the summertime and shooting shots off one foot. And I was like, ‘Jimmy, what are you doing? You’re not going to shoot shots off one foot.’ He’s shooting shots off one foot against the No. 1 team in the NBA in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.

“Niko (Mirotic with a career high 27 points and six of six threes) stepped up huge for us,” added Noah, who had 10 points, 13 rebounds, two late pressure free throws and pronounced himself the healthiest he’s been this season. “He’s just such a different weapon with his ability to spread the floor. He’s an excellent rebounder. And he’s really starting to get that defensive system down. A lot of time with shooters, they’re one dimensional. I think this guy is the real deal. And I think he’s getting better every game. He just adds a whole different dimension with his three-point shooting, his ability in the pick-and-roll, his passing. I think defensively he’s going to get better and better. He’s a deceptive rebounder. Tips it to himself and (stuff). The sky is the limit for him.”

Maybe for the 17-9 Bulls as well, now a by far Eastern Conference best 12-4 on the road.

A win like Friday’s in Memphis, the feared “grindhouse” where the Grizzlies had only previously lost to the Spurs carries with it the imprimatur of consequence.

Sure, it’s only December and another regular season game in the season long marathon. But this mile marker stands out. The Bulls came in not only missing Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, but with Memphis coming off its best wins of the season, if not in franchise regular season history. Plus, this is a Memphis team for the first time considered a true title contender, and thus motivated to prove its worth.

Yet, the Bulls not only controlled the game after falling behind 22-20 after the first quarter, but the Bulls withstood a Grizzlies team known for dramatic comebacks this season and a dazzling late Memphis charge with one pressure play after another from across the roster from Butler’s two acrobatic driving baskets, a Mirotic three after his shooting ran Zach Randolph out of the game and then pressure free throws in the last 35 seconds and leading by three or fewer from first Noah, then E’Twaun Moore and Aaron Brooks, the latter who added 17 points off the bench with three of five threes.

“Niko was terrific throughout,” enthused Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I love the fact E’Twaun went in… those were two clutch free throws. I give him a lot of credit for being ready. We had a number of guys. Jimmy was phenomenal again. When you look at the rebounding, particularly against a team like this on the road, Pau (Gasol) didn’t have it going offensively but rebounded well. Jo rebounded great. Jimmy had the 10 rebounds. Niko had eight. That goes a long way.”

Long was an appropriate statement because this is a tough and relentless Memphis team that ranks among the league’s elite in scoring offense and defense. But the Bulls held the Grizzlies to 39.4 percent shooting in what likely was the Bulls’ best all around game of the season, outrebounded the Grizzlies 51-43, didn’t allow a single Grizzlies player more than three assists and with the Bulls’ size had three players with at least 10 rebounds.

Though injuries haven’t enabled the Bulls to completely see what they have, Friday’s game was another glimpse with Mirotic in the fast lane of the size and versatility the Bulls can throw at teams.

“When you have (Noah) and Pau out there together, that’s a lot of length,” noted Thibodeau. “You throw Niko in there, that’s different, but it’s also length. When we get Taj back that’s more length, and Mike Dunleavy’s long. When you throw Jimmy in at the two we’re big.”

It’s size perhaps no one in the NBA can match to go along with the Bulls usual rugged play. With the wildcard suddenly becoming Mirotic, who abandoned his shooting hesitancy Friday. He was quick with his shot, forcing the Grizzlies to replace Randolph with Vince Carter and Quincy Pondexter to play Mirotic. And Mirotic still got off shots with his quick release. Plus, it limited the Grizzlies down the stretch without Randolph’s offense, though as a smallish power forward Randolph struggled earlier against Noah and Pau Gasol inside.

It raises a nice issue to have when Gibson returns of how to keep Mirotic on the court.

His shot is pure with a quick release and almost effortless from long range. He’s not about to make six threes with any regularity. But he provides a vital element to a Bulls offense not valued for it’s three point.

“He’s a great option for us,” said Noah. “He’s a very good shooter. Guys like that, even when they’re not shooting the ball well, it just spreads the court for everybody else. There are a lot of options out there.”

So, no, not just another day in the NBA and on to the next one, like Thibodeau’s regular mantra.

“I’m not Thibs; OK,” Noah said laughing when asked if he would repeat Thibs’ incantation. “I’m not Thibs. Just because he says something doesn’t mean I feel the same way. It was a great win.”

Indeed, it was.

After that stuttering start for both teams, Mirotic got down, as it were, and left the Grizzlies singing the blues in their arena in the shadows of famous Beale Street. A somewhat uncertain shooter this season, Mirotic swamped the Grizzlies like the banks of the Mississippi overflowing with four second quarter three pointers: A pull up in transition, an inside/outside pass from Pau Gasol, a behind the back from Brooks and closing the half from so far out the Grizzlies barely came out to defend. It would lead to perhaps an overreaction from the Grizzlies, who kept scoring machine Randolph out the entire fourth quarter because of his inability to come out to defend Mirotic.

“Some nights he passes up shots,” noted Gasol. “With his ability he has to be aggressive and decisive when open. Just make the right basketball play. He played with a lot of confidence tonight, (I) saw maturity and he was decisive. We had a huge contribution from him; he was a key to win this game. Anyone who can hit six threes in a game for six attempts, I would say is pretty important.”

Mirotic, though getting more comfortable with English-speaking media, nevertheless, left the locker room before reporters arrived. It was certainly a case of speaking loudest with your play.

Brooks added nine points in the second quarter with his repertoire of “No, no, no, yes,” moves and shots as the Bulls took a 51-43 halftime lead.

“Pretty impressive,” added Noah on Brooks. “He’s a great offensive player. I know that because he’s tough to guard in practice. He definitely has a janky game.”

Urbane and sophisticated, Noah does speak several languages and I admit to not knowing most. Janky in various interpretations I take to mean idiosyncratic.

The Bulls maintained a comfortable third quarter lead until Courtney Lee got hot to pull Memphis within 63-59. But every time the Grizzlies made a run, the Bulls responded with clutch plays, the sort that you need against strong teams that keep coming at you like in playoff situations. Brooks made back to back pull up threes and Butler closed the third taking the ball full court for a running right hander that you don’t want to teach to little kids.

“I wouldn’t say I work on that, a lot of one legged stuff,” laughed Butler with his second straight game of more than 30 points. “The shot went in; I won’t say I make them nine out of 10. Score the ball; find a way to get a basket, so it was good. I may be the first option (in games like the last two), but that doesn’t mean I’m the only option.”

Butler has been terrific with his 16th game this season with at least 20 points after nine total his first three years in the NBA. In the last two games averaging almost 44 minutes, Butler is averaging 33 points, 7.5 rebounds, four assists, three steals and is 18 for 19 from the free throw line and 22 for 42 shooting, both games exactly 11 for 21.

“He continues to do what he does, nothing different really,” said Gasol of Butler. “He does a great job attacking; he is playing with a lot of confidence right now. I saw tonight what I see pretty much every night.”

What few see many nights is a matchup of two such accomplished brothers as the Bulls’ Pau Gasol and the Grizzlies Marc Gasol, both having superior seasons for top teams. There was anticipation for the matchup, but they pretty much neutralized one another with Pau getting six points and 11 rebounds and Marc Gasol 13 points and 10 rebounds, though neither played a part in the major situations other than a late Marc dunk.

Mike Conley led Memphis with 21 points, but just two assists while the Bulls defense held Memphis under 40 percent, rare for them this season and especially at home.

But it still appeared the Grizzlies with their home fans roaring would steal this one.

Butler got the Bulls going again in the fourth quarter with continued strong moves to the basket and a team best 11 fourth quarter points as the Bulls took an 82-72 lead with about eight minutes left.

But this Grizzlies team with the additions of Vince Carter and Lee has more scoring and Conley an impressive attacking point guard. They kept coming at the Bulls, though with Butler holding them off. First, Butler hit a runner for a three-point play when Memphis drew within 84-78 with 4:59. Then Butler drove left for a running pull up bank shot with 1:21 left after the Grizzlies got within 92-88.

“Jimmy, every time that game was hanging in the balance he came through with a big play for us,” marveled Thibodeau. “Clutch play after clutch play. Great defense. No possessions off. Plays were great. Intensity was great. Great concentration. You can’t say enough about what he does. Huge, huge. The game is in the balance right there, the poise he plays with; he has a lot of poise under pressure and that is key.”

But it would have to be from many more Bulls before this one was goodnight, Irene for the Grizzlies.

Conley came back with a 19 footer as he’s become one of the best clutch fourth quarter shooters in the NBA. He would score 10 of Memphis’ last 14 points around two Marc Gasol baskets. No Randolph with Mirotic in the game would raise questions for Memphis.

Lee missed a questionable pullup three with 37.9 seconds left and Memphis grabbed Noah on the rebound. Noah made one of two for a 95-90 Bulls lead with 35.5 seconds left. The Grizzlies ran a nice play for a Marc Gasol slam dunk as Noah left to help while the Bulls were playing four guards and couldn’t help on Marc Gasol. Thibodeau was playing offense/defense switches and had brought Moore in for Mirotic for defense.

Memphis immediately fouled intentionally with 28.6 seconds left trailing 95-92 when the ball was inbounded. Noah, who was two of six on free throws Thursday against the Knicks, made both for a 97-92 lead. Conley went right to the rim and scored as the Bulls remained small. The Bulls called timeout with 22.8 seconds left leading 97-94. Memphis fouled Brooks on the inbounds, and he made both for a 99-94 lead. But the Bulls let Conley run up into a three to cut the Bulls lead to 101-97 with 7.9 seconds left.

Noah was inbounding to avoid having to go to the line. But he only could find Moore, who was all of zero for two from the free throw line for the season.

“Took it and was ready for it,” shrugged Moore with sort of that response that he’d been there before.

Noah was having fun with him as reporters approached afterward, yelling the media cliché, “How did you feel?”

“I know I had (shot) two and I missed them,” said Moore, who’d played almost 200 NBA games before this season. “I was zero for two. I didn’t think about it then, but, yeah, I knew. Just go hit the free throws, that’s it.”

Moore easily made both and Conley missed a heave that effectively ended the game.

“It was a big win,” agreed Noah. “They are playing well. Pau told us yesterday that this game meant a lot for him. That was cool. I like that sentimental (stuff). You know what I'm saying.”

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