It's been said New York leads the nation in the number of people around whom not to make a sudden move. It seems the Bulls Saturday may have taken that too literally in a potentially devastating 107-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Seemingly assured of victory with a nine-point lead with just over four minutes remaining against the team with the poorest record in the NBA—and shooting for a win that would virtually clinch a playoff berth—the Bulls barely moved at all. The Nets made a pair of threes and got a fast break layup with Bulls defenders seemingly paralyzed. It all seemed to happen in a Brooklyn minute.
And then with Jimmy Butler taking on the Nets and scoring the Bulls last nine points, it wasn't enough when Spencer Dinwiddie tied the game with a pressure three pointer with 1:23 left and then made four free throws in the last 13.6 seconds. Butler with 33 points made a three at the buzzer for the final margin.
Was that the playoffs flashing by their eyes?
"We didn't guard anybody," lamented Butler, who played another complete game with a career best five of five threes. "We score points. We've just got to stop other teams from scoring. When we're just trading baskets, the opposing teams might win that a majority of the time. Got to react better, got to communicate better and more. We've had a couple of these losses. Is it deflating? No, because we're still in it. All we've got to do is win. You know we've been saying how we needed this one today, yesterday, and we're going to say how we need these next two; we've got to have them."
Yes, and then there were two.
The Bulls probably have to win them both, Monday against Orlando and Wednesday against Brooklyn, to make the playoffs at 41-41. They are both in the United Center, but Miami continues to play well, winning Saturday in Washington to tie the Bulls for the eighth/ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers moved into seventh with their win Saturday.
The Bulls have the tiebreaker against both Miami and Indiana, which means the Bulls can get to seventh with two wins and an Indiana loss and just have to end up in a tie with Miami to make the playoffs.
But the Bulls are coming off two losses in the last week to two of the league's poorest teams, the last place Nets and sinking Knicks. Miami barely was nosed out Friday by Toronto and won in Washington Saturday.
Can this Bulls team with destructive and debilitating losses all season to losing teams right itself and win two games it now needs?
This was supposed to be a celebratory day, the return of Dwyane Wade from injury ahead of schedule and actually a chance to clinch if Miami were to lose. And it looked encouraging with a dynamic third quarter in which the Bulls took an 82-75 lead after trailing early by 15 points.
Certainly, the Bulls would have the edge to close with veteran savvy, desperation and a prize while the Nets, now 20-60, were playing out the season with a hodge-podge lineup of youngsters and journeyman veterans.
When Nikola Mirotic had a block on a Jeremy Lin drive with 4:30 left and ran back to finish a three-point play, the Bulls led 97-89, the Bulls fans in the crowd in the Nets last home game of the season were louder and all it took were a couple of clinching defensive stands.
There would be few to come as Michael Carter-Williams missed a drive and Mirotic a three. Worse, the Bulls let rookie Caris LaVert open for a pair of arena rousing threes, and suddenly the Bulls were in a game again.
"They kept fighting," acknowledged Wade. "They made runs every time we got up; eventually got a lead and held onto it. Jimmy played amazing down the stretch, hit all the big shots; we just needed some stops."
Wade had 14 points and seven rebounds, playing just under 25 minutes in his return after missing 11 games with an elbow fracture. He was uncertain early with four first half turnovers, but had a pivotal run of six straight fourth quarter point that led to the first of two Bulls' nine point leads in the fourth. But he also was a culprit on the crucial wide open, back breaking Dinwiddie three.
"Couple of missed communications on assignments," Wade admitted. "One thing we were doing all game in the post when Brook (Lopez) had it me and Jimmy would go double and we didn't rotate quick enough and Spence hit the three."
Dinwiddie had 19 points off the bench to tie LaVert as Nets high scorer. The Nets reserves dominated the Bulls' 47-24.
After that Mirotic three for the 97-88 lead, the Bulls had a turnover and four misses, two by Mirotic who was a tough one of nine shooting. The turnover was on a two-on-one break when Mirotic threw too high on a lob for Butler. But it looked like Butler might save it again, anyway.
After Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored on a runout following a Mirotic missed three with 2:30 left, the Nets took a lead for the first time since midway through the third, 99-98.
Butler then made a tough, pull up 18 footer with two Nets on him for the lead and was fouled after a Jeremy Lin miss and made two free throws for a 101-98 Bulls lead with 1:36 left. The Bulls breathed a bit. But too much as Wade got tangled up with Butler, leaving Dinwiddie, the former Bull who played for Windy City this season, open. He tied the game with his three.
Butler missed on a drive and Mirotic fouled Hollis-Jefferson, who made two free throws. Butler tied the game at 103 with 31.7 seconds left on an even tougher step back 22 footer.
"I don't know when I'm doing too much," offered Butler. "I just know that I want to win. I trust in these guys around this locker room, and I'm riding with them to the end."
Dinwiddie then got penetration off a pick and roll and was fouled by Wade. He made both for a 105-103 lead and Butler missed on a right corner jumper with 13.6 seconds left. The Bulls had to foul with 5.4 seconds left and he made both again. So Butler's last three just made it closer.
"It was disappointing," said Hoiberg, "especially on the one where they tied it. We didn't rotate into Spencer when he hit the three to tie the game. That got them momentum back after having a three-point lead late. You can't have that breakdown. A couple of turnovers got them out in transition as well. We had one switch and didn't run him off the line. LaVert hitting the three and next possession hit one in transition."
Same old, same old.
It's too bad because the Bulls got a smart game from Robin Lopez with 16 points, outscoring his high scoring brother. Jerian Grant had another good game with 15 points and five assists. The Bulls out-rebounded Brooklyn 52-44 and were 11 of 24 on threes. They bounced back from an off balance first half, the absence of Rajon Rondo crucial. Rondo remained out with a sprained right wrist and the ball movement was missing early. The Bulls had seven first half assists on 17 baskets, reverting back to mostly isolation on post-ups. It wasn't until that vibrant third quarter that they began to share and space and run. Late it was appropriate for Butler to dominate, and he produced. But the league's 29th lowest scoring team had 32 fourth quarter points and 19 in the last four minutes.
Against a team needing a win to virtually assure a playoff position.
"When it's that close guys have to make plays," said Wade. "The home team made them. Jimmy made all the shots. We just didn't make enough as a team, defensively (too). We've been going through this all year; this is nothing different."
Wade said his elbow came through well and Rondo has said he expects to play before the season is over. Which could now be Wednesday.
"I don't think (pressure got to anyone)," said Wade. "We started the game slow and then picked it up; we had a lead and it was time to pull away and LaVert made some shots and they got it going and then it was back and forth, and from there it was who makes the last shot pretty much and they ended up doing it.
"Elbow felt cool," Wade assured. "Just trying to get my legs back and my wind back, but the elbow felt great. My goal was to get back for the playoffs, but I'm glad I was able to get out there a couple of games, trying to get back to playing with these guys so they can get comfortable with me and I can also get comfortable playing again. I think everyone here understands that you've got them at home, you have to figure out a way to win them. We control our own destiny, but you have to have them if you want to get to the playoffs."
So that's it; it's all Bulls now. Back close to that wall. Nearing the ledge. Win or go home; win at home and go, likely to Cleveland. Lose at home and you don't have many excuses.
"Just let everybody know how hard you've got to play," said Butler. "I think everybody knows where we stand. Everybody is a grown man in here and I feel like they know that we must win these games if we want to find ourselves in the postseason. Ain't too much to say. We're in this together and that's all."