We know close counts mostly in horseshoes and hand grenades. That it did count somewhat for the Bulls Monday in their 102-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks suggests how far they are from the team they believed they were.
“I was proud of them for fighting back from a double digit deficit,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We were able to recover from our poor second quarter (30-14 Atlanta) and give ourselves a chance to win. We went down swinging, and that is something we talked about. Stick together and keep fighting. I am proud of how they went down swinging.”
It wasn’t like the Bulls were celebrating a narrow loss in another somber post game. But that it was something to provide hope was both the good and the bad. Good that they competed well enough after last week’s meltdown three straight blowout losses to losing teams to maintain some optimism in these last nine games. Bad that an encouraging sign was merely having a chance to win in the last seconds, that from a team just months ago with contending aspirations.
“Who’s not?” said Derrick Rose when asked about being surprised to be in this position. “The story of the year. Who’s not surprised?”
The Bulls fell to 36-37 and tied with the Washington Wizards for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two and a half games behind the eighth place Detroit Pistons. The Indiana Pacers, whom the Bulls play Tuesday, are three games ahead in seventh place. It’s getting close to tragic number time, elimination from the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Bulls host Detroit Saturday.
“Tough one, but much better overall,” said Pau Gasol. “The competitiveness and the desire to win. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Regroup and go at it again tomorrow. Every game that goes by we don’t win we put ourselves in a more difficult position; this is where we are. We have to deal with it, accept it, face it and we have to fight.
“Today a lot of things were a lot better,” Gasol added. “The feeling, working together, scrambling, hustling more than we have the last three games. The chances are getting narrower for us. We have to face that reality, but we are still hopeful if we put more games together like tonight we will give ourselves a chance and see what happens.”
Rose led the Bulls with 20 points and five assists, but he shot eight of 25. Gasol added 19 points and 11 rebounds. Jimmy Butler had 15 points and nine rebounds, but he shot five of 16. He and Rose were a combined 13 for 41 as the Bulls shot 38 percent. But unlike previous games, the Bulls outrebounded hot Atlanta 58-47 and 19-9 in second chance points. Taj Gibson was ferocious in leading all rebounders with 12 and adding four blocks. Aaron Brooks came off the bench for his best game in a month with 16 points, and seven in leading a Bulls rally from 13 behind in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls opened fast with a 31-22 lead after one quarter. But they gave it all back in a four of 26 shooting second quarter to trail 52-45 at halftime. Atlanta still led 80-71 after three quarters and 88-75 with 8:37 left in the game. Hoiberg went with Rose and Brooks, and then added Butler and the Bulls began a comeback.
Rose made a runner and finally got to the free throw line, Rose so frustrated earlier about lack of foul calls he drew a technical foul. Butler made a three, his second in his last 16 as he’s had issues since his return from his knee problems. Hoiberg said Butler skipped shootaround, and is “sore,….out there battling through pain. Nothing wrong structurally, but he just has some overall soreness.” Since his return, Butler is averaging seven points fewer per game and shooting 15 percent on threes.
After Butler’s three, Gasol got out ahead for a rare easy Bulls score to close an 11-2 run. Paul Millsap followed his own miss, but Brooks made an improbable scoop on the run off a Butler post up. Brooks then made a tough three. And after an Al Horford free throw, Brooks put in another tough drive, obviously hit on the play without a foul call. Still, it gave the Bulls a 93-93 tie with 1:40 left and in position to win and beat a top team that came in winning eight of nine.
Gibson, in many respects, has been the lone star of this lonely time for the Bulls with his relentless play despite an apparent rib injury. He blocked a Millsap attempt and the Bulls had a chance to take a lead in the last minute for the first time in what seemed like weeks.
“Taj has been huge for us the way he’s being aggressive on both ends,” said Butler. “Talking out there; we need him to continue to be that way. We really need him.”
They most really needed a basket, and they couldn’t find one when they once would.
Gibson missed a jumper and Kent Bazemore with the rebound was fouled. He made one of two with 1:06 left for a 94-93 Hawks lead. Rose then went baseline for a reverse and had his attempt blocked. Thabo Sefolosha ran it back and was fouled, making both for a 96-93 Hawks lead with 39.8 seconds left. Butler then missed a corner three.
“It was tough down the stretch when plays don’t go your way,” said Butler. “I thought we took good shots down the stretch. Some went in, some didn’t; that’s basketball for you.”
Jeff Teague, who had 26 points, was fouled with 22.2 seconds left and made both for a 98-93 Atlanta lead.
Butler then threw in a three as he was jumping in to create contact and was fouled, giving the Bulls life with a four-point play. It was 98-97 Atlanta. The Bulls had to foul, but they let shooter Kyle Korver get the ball. He made both.
“We had a play drawn up to give us two looks at the three (to tie),” said Hoiberg. “They took them away. Mike (Dunleavy) made a great cut to the basket; unfortunately it didn’t go in.”
Dunleavy, who’s been in an awful slump as well averaging 5.5 points and shooting 29 percent overall since returning from a virus, missed the wide open layup on the backdoor cut. The Hawks made two more free throws to clinch the win as Rose threw in a three at the close.
“Mentally we have to stay strong,” said Rose. “The reality is we are fighting for a playoff spot. We put ourselves in this position by the way we’ve played; still got a shot. It’s not the end of the year.”
It’s all they can do at this point given it was a more encouraging effort, and teams have been known to lose the most unlikely games down the stretch when the wins should seem simple.
The Bulls’ defense was its best in weeks to start as they scored the first eight points and led 12-3. The Hawks pulled within 18-16, but Hoiberg left more starters on the floor with the shaky-of-late reserves. Gasol’s 12 first quarter points led to the 31-22 margin. The second quarter was the sort of scoring disaster we’ve seen lately with the Bulls, an astonishing one for 22 finish to the quarter after the Bulls took a 40-28 lead with 8:44 left.
The Bulls have become expert in lazily surrendering momentum, and did so again with a Brooks sideways pass that went for a fast break and Bobby Portis stripped for what became an Atlanta three in transition. Then it was plenty of the usual one-on-one play as everyone tried to stop the bleeding on their own and the predictably poor pick and roll defense and lack of help inside as layups became routine. While Gibson battles on boards, it’s rare to see others. Instead, players begin to retreat, though still yield layups.
Millsap closed with a flourish while Rose and Butler were a combined zero for 10 in the second quarter and the starters one for 18 in 36 combined minutes.
“We competed through the entire game except for the second quarter when we couldn’t make any shots, shots we normally make,” said Rose.
Butler and Dunleavy combined to go two of 10 in the third quarter as Butler, saying he was “all right,” has not been able to beat his defender like he was since he’s returned. He had a nice follow dunk early and still can finish the lob from Gasol. But he seems unable to get that burst in the half court without a running start, and the offense tends to halt. Brooks closed the third quarter with a three to get the Bulls within 80-71. When Atlanta started the fourth quarter 6-2, it looked like another double digit surrender. Not this time, which was something. But they only count the final score.
“It’s tough, especially (to lose) at home in the position we are in,” noted Butler. “We have another tomorrow, a must win. We have to win as many as possible. It starts with tomorrow. If we come out tomorrow the way we did tonight, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win.
“We’ve been in this position all year long,” said Butler. “It’s an uphill fight from here. We’ve got to keep battling and stay together. The good and bad right now; it’s kind of the bad now. Just continue to try to win games.”