This season’s Bulls are a little like the guy who figures out the Goncharov conjecture, which is a conjecture suggesting that the cohomology of certain motivic complexes coincides with pieces of K-groups. And then he can’t get the coffee machine to work. I’m also fairly certain and proud this likely is the first time this sentence ever was written to start a story about an NBA game. Consider yourselves part of this history.
Yes, the Bulls Thursday on national TNT beat the Golden State Warriors 94-87 less than a week after they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. Which sandwiched a loss to the 26-33 Nuggets. Which came just after the Bulls back to back defeated the Celtics and Raptors after losing to the Timberwolves and Suns.
“We’ve had a lot of those games that point to it, where we know we can beat and compete with the best teams,” noted Dwyane Wade. “The good teams figure it out with everybody they play. That’s what we are trying to do where we figure it out and take the ingredients from these games and sprinkle it on the other teams that are not the top teams in the league.”
There’s certainly a recipe out there for a sweeter season the Bulls have yet to discover.
“To beat Toronto, to beat Boston, to beat Cleveland, to beat Golden State, in four of our last five wins, that is not a bad thing,” said Wade. “We can’t go back and change anything. We just have to focus on now. We’ve won five of our last six. We have to keep up this fighting mentality we have. We have a tough team in the Clippers coming in Saturday, which will be another challenge. But we like the challenge and I like this time with this team; we have something to play for. That’s a good thing.”
That’s a very good thing, if an unusual thing as the Bulls also kept up the most unlikely of streaks, winning their 18th straight home game played on Thursday TNT, which generally is a matchup of top teams. Yet, the Bulls are a pedestrian 31-30 after delivering the Warriors arguably their worst regular season loss in three years, their first back to back loss in almost two years and season lows in scoring and shooting at 38.6 percent.
“Our intensity and focus was not there,” said Steve Kerr, who was vomiting earlier in the day from a stomach virus. He seemed sicker after the game.
“We didn’t protect the ball, we didn’t go after it,” said Kerr. “They did a much better job in the fourth quarter of valuing each possession. They really got after us and got some steals and they made some tough shots.”
Stephen Curry led the 50-11 Warriors with 23 points on 10-27 shooting. Klay Thompson was five of 22 and the great backcourt combined to shoot three of 22 on threes.
Paul Zipser for Defensive Player of the Year?
The second round pick returned to the lineup after missing the last three weeks with an ankle injury. Zipser played wily defense down the stretch able to fit into the Bulls switching schemes that bothered the Warriors and hit what was effectively the clinching basket with a three at the 24-second buzzer with 1:41 left for a 91-85 Bulls lead. Jimmy Butler with a team high 22 points finished it off with free throws while Bobby Portis had 17 points and 13 rebounds and a team best plus-21 rating.
The Bulls were ready for the Warriors in one of their tougher, if not most artistic games of the season. Coach Fred Hoiberg had called February the team’s poorest defensive month of the season, the Bulls ranking in the league’s bottom five in defensive rating for the month and falling to 25th in overall defensive field goal percentage for the season. It was somewhat understandable with the trade of sturdy interior defender Taj Gibson and lineup changes to accommodate more young players. Plus, the Bulls do not have what one would call a surfeit of two-way players.
Which was perhaps one reason Zipser was back playing the entire fourth quarter—the Warriors leading the league in scoring and shooting scored 14 fourth quarter points, one fewer than the Bulls in that taffy pull—despite missing the last several weeks.
“Paul Zipser came back and had a huge impact on the defensive end and hit that huge three, which was very timely,” noted Hoiberg. “It certainly wasn’t our 15-point explosive fourth quarter; we had to find a way to get stops to get this win and I thought our guys were locked in on that end.”
It was perhaps as impressive as it was frustrating, this Bulls team with some of the best wins of the NBA season and some of the worst losses. Now 3-0 over Cleveland, 11 straight wins now over Toronto, 2-1 over Boston and with wins over the Warriors and Spurs. Yet, blown out by the Bucks and Knicks, swept by the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Mavericks, losing to the Lakers, Suns, Hornets and Trailblazers. The Bulls are 17-14 against winning teams and 14-16 against losing teams. It’s been a mad, mad, mad mad world of a season.
“We already know who we can be,” said Butler. “Now it’s just a matter of showing everyone, showing ourselves. We know we are talented, we know we can win. We just have to go do it.”
Sure, heard that one.
The Warriors were without the injured Kevn Durant, but as Hoiberg was quick to note, that’s still a team with the back to back MVP, three Olympians and perhaps the league’s top defender.
But it’s not the same Warriors, and not only without Durant, who is expected to return for the playoffs from a knee injury.
Golden State started Patrick McCaw for Durant. JaVale McGee was first off the bench and then guys named Ian Clark and the newly signed Matt Barnes played. Sort of. Not that the Warriors aren’t excellent. But that cockiness they play with is difficult to sustain when McCaw is playing 29 minutes and Zaza Pachulia starts at center. Suddenly, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and Portis are thinking, “Hey, those guys aren’t so special.”
Sure, Curry and Thompson missed an unusually high number of shots. But the Warriors bench was anemic with zero for two on threes in almost 100 minutes played combined. Suddenly, that deep shooting, adept passing game grinds down. The Bulls took advantage with aggressive switching and Portis banging away inside while stretching the court for the Bulls with two of four threes.
“I thought Bobby was awesome,” said Hoiberg. “The first half, especially (with a team high 14 points). He was fighting their guys on the glass, he was fighting our guys on the glass, he was just out there trying to make a big impact on the game. That’s what Bobby Portis is. He’s out there playing winning basketball right now and it’s great to see.”
The Bulls also continued to get inspired play from Rajon Rondo with eight points in 12 minutes and some acceleration in the game, more good shooting from Jerian Grant and 11 rebounds from Cristiano Felicio. Butler added six assists and four steals and mostly shut down the Warriors fast break.
“Bobby was huge,” added Butler. “I love having Bobby out there. He’s confident, constantly working on his game. We always tell everybody to be ready. Bobby was ready (with the trade of Gibson) and deserves it and we’re all happy for him.”
It was Portis early enabling the Bulls to hang in with seven points and five rebounds in the first quarter as it looked like it might be another Warriors win with a 26-19 Golden State first quarter, the Bulls with seven turnovers. The Bulls still trailed 36-28 midway through the second quarter, but were by then doing a good job slowing the pace against the Warriors. You have to play them physically and slower, and then the Bulls had an 11-5 run with a pair of Portis runners and a three and the Bulls were back in the game. They trailed just 51-47 at halftime.
“I’ve been shooting threes my whole life, but I’m finally starting to make them at a higher rate now,” said Portis. “It’s kind of cool to do that. That’s something I have to do for the team, space the floor and shoot the ball. Jimmy always gets mad at me when I don’t shoot the ball; so I shoot it now. This shows the togetherness of us as a unit coming together and peaking at the right time.”
The Bulls can only hope.
They began to take control with a dominant third quarter, harassing Curry and Thompson into two of nine shooting as Butler stayed locked to Thompson much of the game and on Curry late. Better stay out in that soft, shooting Western Conference!
Robin Lopez occupied the smaller Warriors inside while Rondo zipped in for three scores and Wade began to get his shooting going. The Bulls led 79-73 after three quarters. They went stale to open the fourth quarter, allowing the Warriors to stumble to an 85-84 lead with six minutes left in the game. It was shocking that was all as the Bulls began the fourth missing their first six shots before a Nikola Mirotic three and missed 10 of their first 12 with six turnovers in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter.
But the Bulls also refused to allow the Warriors anything and those magical shots were bouncing off the rim. Butler rammed his way for a pair of free throws to take the lead back with 2:53, Wade made a 17 footer after Draymond Green missed three; Zipser hit his three after Curry missed a three and then Curry missed again with a three and a runner.
Felicio closed it out defensively by switching onto Curry and forcing him into a tough miss. Earlier in the second half, both Portis and Lopez blocked the Warriors when they tried to get inside and Mirotic did twice. Warriors players, especially Curry, sat stunned afterward with blank looks. You get the sense the Warriors with this amazing run of success over three seasons have gotten a bit used to walking onto the court and having opponents shrink in intimidation. The Bulls defended well, but the Warriors played like they expected the Bulls to quit because they were the Warriors. Nobody’s buying that now with McCaw and Pachulia starting and McGee, Barnes and Clark top reserves.
The Western Conference suddenly looks a lot more open than it was BKD, yes, before Durant’s injury.
Though the Bulls aren’t much concerned with that. They’re still chasing a playoff position, and with several sub-.500 teams still to play, it’s a frightening time.
“We can’t go back to the beginning of the season and change anything,” said Wade. “We came out of All-Star break saying we have 25 games left and let’s go play these 25 the way we were before a few injuries and sicknesses and let’s see what we can do. We have a tough schedule, some teams coming in here who are very good. But for this team that’s never a bad thing because some way, some how we focus a lot better versus those teams.
“As we said throughout the year, you’re playing the best teams in the league and the best players,” noted Wade. “You have a healthy fear in your belly of what they can do and how they can embarrass you.”
Though isn’t it more embarrassing to lose by 26 to the Bucks and 25 to the Mavs? We’ll find out. This Bulls team obviously isn’t doing anything the easy way. Yeah, go figure.