Maybe the ship ain’t be sinkin’.
That it may have been thrown a lifeline by Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic only makes this rough and rocky cruise that much more strange.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
That being the Bulls ship, to paraphrase Michael Ray Richard’s famous onetime declaration of a season going under, that suddenly was full steam ahead Monday with a 115-109 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
Not only did it come after arguably one of the Bulls worst losses in a decade Sunday in Boston, but it was with Mirotic the leading scorer with 24 points. He hadn’t played the last three games, even being inactive in Boston and despairing that his Bulls career was over. Rondo, who hadn’t started a game in almost three months, moved back into the starting lineup and ignited the team with a season high 20 points to go along with seven rebounds and six assists. Rondo’s thrust and passing led to 29 Bulls assists and an 18-2 fast break margin.
The Bulls had four players score at least 20 points for the first time since Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni and Joe Smith (he was on the team?) eight years ago.
Jimmy Butler had 23 points, 11 assists and a game saving block on Jeremy Lamb with 7.7 seconds left. Dwyane Wade also had 23 points and, according to Rondo, a motivational pregame speech that ended with a united shout in the name of the card game the players had been playing coming down from Boston, guts.
It perhaps took some to come out on the basketball court again after the pathetic national TV blowout loss to the Celtics, a season high fifth consecutive loss and seemingly the end of any hopes to make the playoffs.
But, oh how things can change in the NBA. The Bulls are now tied with Miami for ninth, a half game behind Milwaukee and two and a half games out of sixth at 32-35 with 15 games left.
“I think anything can happen,” said Butler. “I know the way we were losing we wanted to fix it; we did a decent job tonight and now see if we can do it Wednesday (against Memphis). I don’t know if it’s (playoffs) out of reach, but we definitely have to win some games.”
And though Hoiberg refused to commit to the tighter rotation and lineup that was so impressive against the Hornets — “We’ll see how it plays out; a lot will be the flow of the game, how guys are playing, foul trouble, obviously, will play a part; we’ll see who has it going on a certain night and roll with those guys.” — it seems like this group has to be the group to finish the season.
“This is how we want to play; we were sharing it, we were making the unselfish play, it wasn’t sticking in guys’ hands. Hopefully we can bottle this up and continue it on for the rest of the year.”
The Bulls have experimented with point guards since the Rondo benching and then his five-game excommunication, first Michael Carter-Williams and then Jerian Grant and lately Cameron Payne. The guards have complained about the lack of continuity, and even if it’s just mental now, it seems they are not comfortable in that sort of rotation. Similarly, it seems unfair to keep subjecting Payne, who rarely has even practiced with the team or played much in Oklahoma City, to take on such responsibility down the stretch of the season with veterans intent on making the post season.
The Bulls Monday went essentially with an NBA-typical late season eight-player rotation that included Mirotic, Denzel Valentine (with 11 points and again all his shots threes) and Cristiano Felicio. Joffrey Lauvergne played because of foul trouble and Payne had spot minutes for Rondo, firing up six shots in 10 minutes, most ill-timed.
With 15 games remaining and just three back to back sets, it would seem like additional depth isn’t much needed any longer. Especially, because it could be the last 15 games for this group if they don’t perform.
“It’s the cliché, but stay ready,” said Rondo, who has earned plaudits around the team for his professionalism despite going from Alpha to Omega. “I think the rotation will get a little tighter now. Niko’s not going to play like that every game; I’m not going to play like that every game. But do it all. This is what we signed up for and this is a preview of up ahead. Appreciate everyone counting us out; gave it a little more fight.”
Well, if that’s all it takes….
What it took was some personal accounting, some relaxing and who deals, some words of advice and encouragement to Mirotic, from Rondo earlier in the day and Butler and Wade before the game, and that ball movement and pace of play we’ve heard so much about, though mostly seen on TV. Rondo said Hoiberg after the Sunday massacre in Boston invited him to a meeting Monday morning. Changes were made.
“It’s something where we wanted to get Rondo back in the starting lineup,” said Hoiberg with less explanation than observation. “That’s where it started; got our pace going, got us off to a great start. Cam was going to be the backup and play it by ear. The big thing was getting Rondo back out there, Niko back in the rotation and it paid off.
“He (Rondo) took such pride in playing with that second unit and was such a good leader for those guys,” added Hoiberg about perhaps not moving back Rondo sooner. “We had to make a change. We had five straight losses; we had to shake things up. And that’s what we decided to do, inject some pace into our team. Rajon, he’s handled the situation so well. I take my hat off to him for everything he has gone through in his career to handle a situation like he did and continue to battle (having a nice head of hair Hoiberg can do that).
“We had a nice little stretch before this last one (winning five of six),” noted Hoiberg. “This is the time we decided to make the change and hopefully the rest of the year it will inject that life back in our team.”
It did right from the start with Rondo even scoring 11 first quarter points with a trio of three pointers. More importantly, there were 11 assists on 13 field goals, a wacky eight of 13 threes and a 36-24 Bulls first quarter lead.
“I just tried to do what I do best, set the pace,” said Rondo. “We got off to a great start. That’s my only goal, to try to get off to a good lead, get Jimmy some easy looks along with D-Wade. That’s what I came here for. It’s a process I went through. Didn’t kill me; decisions people made, out of my (control).”
But once Rondo had control of the ball and it got out of the hands of Butler and Wade, both were freer and played more fluidly, running the court, getting better shots without defenses collapsing on them and the pace slowing. Butler still isn’t attacking the basket and drawing fouls like he did the first half of the season, perhaps bothered by that heel injury or fatigue. But without having to dominate the offense, he was able to make that big block late and still convert three of four free throws down the stretch with the Hornets cutting a nine-point Bulls lead with 94 seconds left to 110-107 with 23.2 seconds left.
From there, Butler had plenty left to close it out.
“Looked very good, everyone in rhythm, everyone taking open looks, driving and kicking. Even when we watched at halftime we said that’s the way the basketball is supposed to be moved. That’s what we have to start doing, attacking the rim and spreading the ball out. Whatever it takes to win games. I’m guessing we’ll do it again come Wednesday.”
Wade had a run down block in the second quarter, and though the Hornets made a few runs, the Bulls led 58-48 at halftime with Mirotic hitting back to back threes earlier in the second quarter to give the Bulls a 15-point lead. Rondo with a tough drive and Mirotic with a pair of unlikely driving scores late in the third quarter gave the Bulls an 87-77 lead after Charlotte got within 73-71.
And in the fourth quarter after Wade kick started the scoring, it was Mirotic with a timely tipin for a 97-91 lead with 5:20 left and a three after Lamb looked like he’d chopped the Bulls down with his own three. Then Mirotic added a crucial three on a nifty Butler touch pass with 2:34 left after Butler rebounded a Rondo miss. That gave the Bulls a 105-96 lead and they were able to hang on.
That Mirotic was clutch after not even being allowed to put his uniform on in Boston was both to his credit and the continuing curiosity of this season.
“Obviously, I was not happy with the situation,” said Mirotic, who also had a team high 11 rebounds. “Like I said, not too much I can do, work, be ready and when the chance comes try to prove it. I want to stay ready and stay aggressive. From the beginning, Rajon set a tone. Today was one of those days we enjoyed the game.”