Bulls beat Pelicans 121-116

The ball, shot by Doug McDermott bounded high over the rim where Cristiano Felicio glided in, jumped, and as the ball reached its zenith like a balloon floating away, cupped it in his large right hand and in one motion slammed it back through the basket. Then Justin Holiday, step back 14 footer, transition three from Jimmy Butler. And then there was the intense Butler, the Bulls in a 108-108 tie with the New Orleans Pelicans with 2:40 remaining, making a tightly contested three pointer as the shot clock expired. And then after handing out 11 assists running the offense, Butler put his head down and signaled for his team to climb on as he carried the Bulls the rest of the way to a 121-116 victory.

Chicago Bulls 2016-17?

“I know what I am capable of,” said Butler, who led the Bulls with 23 points. “It’s like I tell coach, like I tell Aaron (Brooks) when he jokes around with me, ‘I may not be the best ball handler or the best shooter. But I can pass the ball to the open man and I can get to where I need to on the floor.’ I think coach really trusts me doing that when need be. I’m here to win, I’m here to play.”

Just one more time this season, however.

The Bulls, playing their first game since being eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Monday came back from a 14-point third quarter deficit to blow by the Pelicans with Butler’s nine straight points in just under two minutes. It was just enough to guarantee the Bulls at least a .500 record as they moved to 41-40 against a New Orleans team with nine regulars out injured. The Bulls close the season Wednesday in the United Center against the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I though we competed in the second half much better than we did in the first,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I thought we came out very lackadaisical on the defensive end and allowed them to kind of do what they wanted, giving up 62 points (62-53 first half deficit). I thought we shared the ball all game long. I really challenged them to get stops and come down the other end with pace and a lot of good things happened.

“I thought Jimmy really competed,” Hoiberg added. “I commend him for that in a big way and our young guys again got a big opportunity to go out and play and those guys have a very bright future.”

And so it was a respite from the elegiac realization of being out of the playoffs and perhaps considering changes to reshape the roster and urgency.

Felicio was again impressive with 16 points and six rebounds on six of eight shooting. He started for Pau Gasol, whom Hoiberg said wouldn’t play the rest of the season with recurring knee issues. Derrick Rose also is sitting out the last two games, joining Taj Gibson and E’twaun Moore sidelined. Joakim Noah has been out since January.

And so the Bulls, once they were eliminated, planned on giving extensive playing time to younger players.

Nikola Mirotic played a game high 37 minutes with 20 points and two of seven threes. Holiday started in the backcourt with Butler and split the team’s first 14 points with Mike Dunleavy as the Bulls opened with a 17-10 lead. Holiday had 14 points on six of eight shooting. Bobby Portis had an active game with 13 points and eight rebounds, including two impressive post moves for scores, and Doug McDermott added 10 points and was back doing a running slam dunk.

But it was Butler who saved it in the end with his late scoring run.

It also was a motivated Butler playing point guard, which Hoiberg admits Butler has lobbied for since last summer.

“I wanted to play,” said Butler. “He came to me; he knew how to talk to me. Said, ‘You may have to run point guard.’ ‘Yeah, I’m playing now.’ He knew what to say to me. But I was going to play, anyway.

“There was a kid here from Tomball I went to high school with, gave him my jersey after the game,” Butler added about another reason he insisted on playing when most of the veterans acceded to the younger players with the playoffs lost. “I think that’s a big reason in why I do what I do. I don’t ever want anybody to think that I’m quitting on my team, because I’m not. I’m not saying Pau or Derrick is, either; that’s not what I’m saying. But I love this game. I’m fortunate to play it each and every day, so if I can go out there and compete that’s what I’m going to do.

“I don’t like to lose, period,” said Butler. “I don’t care if we are in the playoffs, out of the playoffs. When I play, I play to win. If coach says, ‘Jimmy you have to play 48 tonight.’ I don’t care what anybody says. That’s my decision.

“I almost didn’t want to come off the floor when he asked me to,” said Butler. “But then I realized it’s a team game and other guys need to build their confidence. Just trying to help my team, being aggressive. But at the same time making the right play. I think that’s why the coach puts the ball in my hand, as of late, because he trusts me to take and make the right shots if I can’t get someone else an easy basket.”

Asked if he was given the option of sitting out, Butler said, “Nobody can make me do anything. I’m a grown man, first and foremost. I wanted to play.”

And so Butler did in a mostly wide open game in which the Pelicans had to use several D-league regulars. James Ennis led them with 29 points and Tony Douglas in the backcourt with him added 21. Backup point guard Tim Frazier had 20 points as the Pelicans shot 51.3 percent.

The Bulls shot a season best 57.1 percent with 29 assists and just nine turnovers. They were 10 of 23 on threes with Dunleavy scoring his most points since March 7 and Tony Snell back on the court for 26 minutes and seven points. But it was the full court activity of Felicio and Portis that helped space out and spring the Bulls offense.

“If we can get those guys sprinting the floor, running to the rim, that will help with our pace,” said Hoiberg. “Cris with Niko out there complement each other well because Cris rolls to the rim and sucks in the defense and that will open up shots for Niko.”

The Pelicans, however, recovered from that Bulls start with former Bull Omer Asik scoring seven of his 14 points and leading 29-27 after one. The Pelicans moved out to a 67-53 lead early in the third quarter. But then it was Felicio and Mirotic combining to give the Bulls an 89-88 lead going into the fourth quarter. Felicio had that terrific followup slam dunk late in the quarter and almost a block that was called a goal tend on a sprint back defensive play.

“He puts a lot of pressure on the defense when he rolls to the basket like he does,” said Butler. “The one thing he really does is guard in the pick and roll. He got a goaltending call, but he ran and got down and tried to pin the shot on the glass. It shows how hard he plays. We need that, especially on the second unit.”

The team exchanged leads throughout much of the fourth quarter in an entertaining, if not decisive, game with 11 ties and 11 lead changes.

McDermott got the Bulls started with eight fourth quarter points, and then Butler closed it out.

“Says a lot (about Jimmy); shows he wants to be the leader of this thing and go out there and I thought he played the right way, had 11 assists, was getting other guys involved, competed all the way to the finish line,” said Hoiberg. “He told me in the offseason he was a point guard; I didn’t really believe him. He’s shown me a lot this year, shown his teammates a lot that not only can he get shots for himself, but also for his teammates by sharing the ball.”

Hoiberg said there’ll be more experimentation Wednesday, and likely more time for Butler to practice the offense.

“I think I did all right (at point guard),” said Butler. “It’s not hard. Everything is basic, a lot of movement, pick and roll, pass it to the guy, let him shoot. I had some careless turnovers. But I think the play calls he draws up are good calls that anybody can initiate.

“We’re going to win the game (Wednesday); that’s the most important thing, go into the offseason strong, make sure guys are confident knowing they belong here in this league and be who I am, a fierce competitor,” said Butler. “I was in their position at one time in my career, not too long ago, actually. So I know what it feels like to want to get reps with the guys that play a lot more than you do. So when they see me out there competing and fighting with them, they always give me everything they have, every possession they are on the floor. Moving forward I just want them to continue to compete, continue playing hard, continue working on their game.

“I just want to finish the season strong; if we win we finish strong.”