The night began with a prayer, and in the religion of basketball basically ended with what’s called a prayer, a Dwyane Wade three pointer with 26.3 seconds left that proved a deliverance for the Bulls in Thursday’s opening night 105-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.
Perhaps it’s too soon to declare it salvation for the Bulls. But as saviors go, it looked a lot like Wade in making the big plays down the stretch, calming the team in times of earlier turmoil and restoring a spirit that had waned in previous seasons.
“D. Wade means a lot,” said Taj Gibson, who teamed with Wade on a pair of crucial pick and roll scores in the last minutes that preceded Wade’s winner. “You need him to be the Wade he’s always been, a guy not afraid to attack, not afraid to take big shots. You see late in the game that was a big three we needed. When D. Wade took that shot and made it, it was special. He was jumping around; our swag was there. It was kind of awkward, though. I’m used to him kind of doing that against us; it was a great thing.”
Yes, the Bulls have been the victim of those Wade dramatics for years, and though a little late after 13 years in the NBA, it’s not too late.
Wade was simply magnificent in a home opener more significant that just one game, which everyone would have said if the Bulls lost. But with eight new players—and a ninth added before the game in 2015 first round pick R.J. Hunter—the Bulls needed the momentum a win could provide, and perhaps more importantly one in which they lost a big lead and then were threatened down the stretch but pulled away with big plays.
There were plenty of plusses. Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 24 points and seven rebounds, the three starting perimeter players with Wade and Rajon Rondo combining for 19 rebounds to lead the Bulls overwhelming 55-36 rebounding margin (18-5 in second chance points). Rondo added nine assists, Gibson was special with 18 points and 10 rebounds and Nikola Mirotic had 15 points, nine rebounds and a crucial defensive play down the stretch. Michael Carter-Williams had five straight points early in the fourth to hold off a first Boston run, and coach Fred Hoiberg made all the right moves in a masterful coaching effort.
Wade with four of six three pointers—matching Butler’s four of six as the Bulls were 11 of 25 for 44 percent on threes—credited Hoiberg’s work with him on his shot for his improved three-point shooting. Hoiberg also stuck with Mirotic after some early three-point misses, and Mirotic responded by forcing a Boston turnover just before Wade’s three with the Bulls hanging onto a two-point lead with under a minute left.
But Wade wasn’t done saving the night. Boston came out of the timeout going to three–point shooter Gerald Green to try to get back within two. Wade blocked Green’s attempt as he tried to rise up, the Bulls recovered, and this uncertain and unknown season was off to an impressive start.
“Just so excited opening night and my first game back to make a shot like that and help us get this win. I felt very good about the shot and there was a lot of emotion; I had an out of body experience after that. It was a good moment,” said Wade. “Like the perfect storm.”
A red storm, if you will.
That’s what the Celtics saw to start, Wade with a 20 footer in his first shot in a Bulls uniform, Rondo stripping the ball from Isaiah Thomas right afterward, the Bulls taking a 25-10 lead after Wade, Butler and yes, even Rondo, made first quarter three pointers, Rondo galvanizing the offense with active pick and rolls and aggressive passing, and leaping to teammates’ defense.
That was late in the second quarter, and a significant moment in itself as the Celtics moved back within 49-43. Former Butler Marquette teammate Jae Crowder grabbed a Wade miss and ran into Butler, knocking him down. Butler kind of kicked up at Crowder, who then leaned on Butler. Teammates moved in and when Thomas grabbed at Butler, Rondo came sprinting to grab Thomas. With the referees trying to make sure the nine players now milling around didn’t do any more, Wade stood to the side practicing threes.
“Jae’s my guy,” said Butler while Crowder declined comment to Boston media. “In the heat of the moment that’s supposed to happen. (But) that let’s me know these (guys) are coming to war with you. When I hit the deck, Rondo was right there. I want to thank Rondo for backing me up thoroughly. It’s good to have guys show you we are going to be here together. And Wade was practicing his three-point shot. That’s my guy.”
It didn’t amount to much, as these things don’t in the NBA anymore, but it did present a picture of the togetherness and spirit the Bulls felt they lacked last season and which Wade and Rondo have helped deliver with their presence. And exorcise some demons of their own.
“It was important to play with the spirit of a tough minded team,” said Gibson. “Rondo is a tough minded guy; he loves his teammates. The whole night he was just chattering away, telling us what to do. You see when the scuffle happened he was the first one in there. It’s great to have guys like that having your back. The good teams know how to find a way to win games. That comes from having guys like D. Wade, Rondo, guys who have actually won before and are not afraid to take those shots. All during the game all I heard was Rondo’s voice constantly motivating guys, constantly telling guys where to go; even when D. Wade hit that big shot, Rondo was in there saying, ‘Stop celebrating, let’s get ready for the next play.’ Those are the things that help teams.”
The Bulls led 57-49 at halftime, staggered out to start the second half as Boston actually took a 69-68 lead with 4:23 left in the third. Butler then added a couple of tough scores to give the Bulls a 79-73 lead after three. Wade got the Bulls back into double digits early in the fourth and turned it over to Carter-Williams for a run that put the Bulls ahead 95-81. But Thomas with 25 points drove the Celtics back within two before the closing key plays. It was Mirotic forcing rookie Jaylen Brown into a travel with good face up defense and then Wade with the big three, fortuitously the ball almost a Butler turnover, but then rolling past Gibson to Wade in the corner. He dribbled into a step back three.
“It all comes down to having fun,” said Butler. “I think everyone is having fun out there; everybody wants everybody to be successful. When that’s happening you all come together through the good and bad, have each other’s back and that shows. I don’t know if they have me for an assist for that (last shot). I turned the ball over through somebody’s legs, but he ended up with the winner, so I think that’s an assist.”
Winning makes for plenty of smiles, like having Dwyane Wade around. Talk about charisma.
Wade had a team best plus-15 on the plus/minus, and it was obvious sometimes when he left the game that the team staggered. He played point guard often, had offense run through him in the half court, ran a classic pick and roll with Gibson and with Cristiano Felicio for a lob dunk. Made big shots, challenged the officials for his teammates. Though some have doubted him, Wade has been sincere about his thrill at being back in Chicago to play pro basketball. So much so that Wade with a large family contingent in attendance, knelt in prayer as he was introduced first with the starters.
“I’ve been waiting on that moment a long time and I know my family has been waiting probably as long,” Wade said during a long post game session with reporters. “I took that moment to thank God for giving me this opportunity to be here, to do these things, to have this career I have and to be able to make a decision on my own and put myself in position to live a dream out. I was very thankful in that moment. I took that knee to thank my Lord and hear the cheers of the crowd and take in the moment.
“We have a lot of ground to make up with teams playing together for awhile, Cleveland, Toronto, this team Boston, a lot of small things, the details to give us an edge,” Wade added. “We’ve got ball players; we’re a very deep team. I like the team Paxson and Gar put together and I’m excited about the possibilities with this unit. I’m from 59th and Prairie. It took a while for a lot of people to even realize I was from Chicago because I didn’t play at Simeon or Whitney Young or one of those powerhouse schools. But I take a lot of pride in being from this city, I take a lot of pride in representing this city as a basketball player. I’m just trying to follow in the footsteps of greatness and hopefully I can make a difference.
“I’ve been embraced here,” said Wade. “I’ve put myself into this organization and my teammates; the past is the past, the now is the now. Now I’m a Chicago Bull.”
It makes many things now possible.