Could this be the moment, the turning point, the time when the Bulls really are back. After all, with Friday’s 128-121 overtime win over the Phoenix Suns, the Bulls haven’t lost a game in almost two weeks and haven’t lost at home in four weeks.
So they’ve only played three games at home the last month, and so they just came off an All-Star break with seven off days. OK, I am the guy who tells everyone, ‘See you next year,’ on New Year’s Eve. But, hey, it is three wins in a row and back to .500 at 29-29.
“Now got to string some together, like I’ve said like 15 times this season,” said Jimmy Butler, whose two clutch jump shots at the end of regulation rallied the Bulls back from a late fourth quarter 11-point deficit.
And so the Bulls did and move on in this most unpredictable of seasons, both searching for the playoffs and their future amidst Thursday’s traumatic trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott.
It ended a long All-Star break and started a stretch run for the 2016-17 season. New players coming from the Oklahoma City Thunder Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow did not play. Some could play in Cleveland Saturday. So it was yet again another rotation and group of new starters with Bobby Portis taking over for Gibson at power forward. Michael Carter-Williams got the start at point guard, ostensibly for his size on defense.
Though it was rookie Denzel Valentine moving into the McDermott role who was crucial off the bench with 15 points and five of eight three pointers. Nikola Mirotic, who was speculated as the most likely to be traded, tied his season high with 20 points as he and Valentine combined to shoot nine of 15 on threes. The Bulls were 12 of 26 overall on threes with 31 assists.
“Valentine was huge,” said Wade. “Making shots when we really needed then, Niko as well. Those guys got opportunity tonight and took advantage and played good minutes; that is what we are going to need. We’re going to need guys to be confident in themselves and shoot the ball; tonight Valentine really gave us a big lift.”
Robin Lopez had 19 points and Rajon Rondo tied Butler with a team high nine assists. Portis had nine points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes. But it was Wade with a team high 23 points, a key late regulation steal and overtime slam dunk that raised the United Center roof, and Butler with those Superman late jumpers after struggling much of the game and overtime steal and his own dunk. In their own way, they were the blues brothers, making the Suns sing a sad song after having led 102-91 with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
“Just keep shooting the ball,” said Butler, who was three of 13 for eight points through three quarters. “Eventually they are going to go in and they did. Denzel came over and said, ‘This is your time. Do what you do.’ I just tried to be way more aggressive when it came to trying to find a shot instead of trying to find a different guy to pass to. I know I better make those bad babies when he puts the ball in my hand.”
Butler did again in a game that seemed lost, the Bulls outrun and outshot by the Suns most of the game, trailing by 13 points late in the third quarter as well and seeing the Suns score 27 fast break points with 52.7 percent shooting for the game. How do you even stay close with Butler and Wade a combined six for 19 for 17 total points through three?
But it was Butler with a step back three with 48.2 seconds left in regulation that tied the game at 106 and then Butler again with 9.1 seconds left with a 13 foot baseline fadeaway for a 108-106 lead after Wade stripped the ball from a driving Eric Bledsoe. It then was almost a night and day of referee angst as Wade was called for a three-shot foul on Suns high scorer Devin Booker with 1.5 seconds left. Make three and the Suns likely win on the late call that seemed highly questionable.
Both players seemed to even agree it was not a foul as Booker said afterward, “I didn’t get fouled on the shot. I got fouled before the shot.”
Wade agreed: “I didn’t think I did (foul). (Referee) Lauren (Holtkamp) obviously saw something different. I thought I fouled him on the floor when he was dribbling, but then when he went to shoot I got my hands off him, contested.”
Replays clearly showed Wade not hitting Booker with his body or hand as Booker went up and then only incidental contact after the shot was well off. That’s not considered a foul. But then Booker, who led Phoenix with 27 points, missed the third free throw to send the game to overtime.
The Bulls dominated there, leading the entire five-minute session highlighted by Wade’s hesitation dribble up late and then driving dunk over center Alex Len for a 126-117 lead with 41.6 seconds left. Wade did a little raise the roof pantomime afterward, Butler laughing later and saying Wade needed to be back on defense and quit all the celebrating.
“I tried to relax him (Bledsoe on defense) because I can’t take off like I used to,” said Wade. “So I tried to make him think I wasn’t going and then I went. And lucky I have big hands and I was able to palm the ball and move it a little bit. Being deceptive.”
Just like this Bulls team that looked lethargic back from the long week off, Wade not having played with injuries and illness for two weeks. It would be easy to accept the distraction of the trades and the latest rotation, but the Bulls came back strong to beat a Suns team that blew out the Bulls in Phoenix earlier this month.
And also thanks to the play of Valentine with three of four threes in the third quarter when the Bulls came back from a big deficit to lead 80-79 after three quarters. Valentine was a plus-25 for the game in time on the floor with Mirotic a plus-23. Butler was next high at plus-13.
The Bulls trailed 25-24 after one quarter, down 19-10 to start before Lopez scored inside. The Suns moved out ahead 37-28 in the second quarter before Jerian Grant and Portis’ threes enabled the Bulls to get within 54-52 at halftime. The Suns looked like they’d break it open going ahead 75-63 midway through the third quarter before three Valentine threes in four Bulls possessions. And yet again, the Suns took control, 102-91 late in the fourth before a Mirotic three (he had another in overtime) and Butler taking over down the stretch.
It was Valentine, of all guys, who rarely has played until now with the McDermott trade, encouraging Butler.
“At first Jimmy was struggling, going over to the side, saying, ‘Oh man.’ I just told him, ‘You’re that player for a reason; you’re that All-Star starter for a reason,’” Valentine related. “I knew he was going to step up at the end of the game and take over because he always does.”
And did once again.
Valentine says he will, but that’s not all he is.
“I feel like that’s the majority of my role because Jimmy and D-Wade are handling the ball and making plays so they are going to draw a lot of double teams,” said Valentine. “I have to be ready to knock down those shots. But I can still make plays, too. When I rebound, I can push myself. When I hit a couple and they close out hard, I can drive and make plays as well. That starts it off, but I can still do other things.”
Sounds like a guy ready to take charge of a role, which is what the Bulls like to hear.
They may see some of their new guys Saturday, though Morrow fended off his first controversy when he disclosed on his Twitter account he was giving up his No. 1 Bulls jersey he took because of criticism from some fans on Twitter about it being Derrick Rose’s old number. The same thing happened when Michael Carter-Williams arrived. Payne took Gibson’s No. 22, which was his number in Oklahoma City. Gibson took that number with the Thunder. McDermott got No. 25.
“Rather a good fourth quarter than a good first three quarters; that’s my mentality,” said Wade. “This team is going to go as we go; these guys know that. But it’s also our job to give them confidence, get them shots, get them the ball and then fourth quarter, overtime, it’s our job to help us win this ballgame. That is kind of how this team is built and set up and everyone understands it.”
Do they have one more big, long run in them?