Bulls drop heartbreaker in Houston

That was a hard one for the Bulls Friday, their 121-117 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets.

A James Harden, one, actually.

The Rockets Most Valuable Player candidate had 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and 19 points in the fourth quarter and overtime combined even if Harden shot a ghastly 13 of 33. It also was an audacious series of foul calls that went in Harden’s favor, the Audacity of Nope—no way, c’mon—as on one occasion Harden was actually called for a technical foul for belting Paul Zipser in the face with his elbow while the foul was on Zipser. Harden quickly complained to the officials that Harden bruised his elbow on Zipser’s face.

That was with 6:21 left in the game and the Bulls having recovered from a 17-point first half deficit and were leading 97-93 after the technical free throw. Then in the overtime with 2:03 left and the game tied at 115, Harden tackled Michael Carter-Williams, who led the Bulls with 23 points in his best game of the season. Harden then landed on him with a Hulk Hogan body slam and not only was Carter-Williams called for the foul, but it was his sixth to foul out and Harden made one of two free throws for the lead.

Dwyane Wade, trying to carry the load for the injured Jimmy Butler, had a step back 19 footer for a 117-116 Bulls lead with 1:28 left. The Bulls forced an Eric Gordon turnover, but Taj Gibson with an otherwise terrific game mishandled a Wade pass for a turnover with 46.8 seconds left.

With Carter-Williams out, the Bulls went to Paul Zipser on Harden, and there wasn’t much chance, though Harden merely kicked Zipser this time as Harden was making a 19 footer with the foul for the three-point play and 119-117 Houston lead. Doug McDermott missed a three and then Harden shot free throws for the final margin as Wade and McDermott tried threes in the last 10 seconds.

“The game must go on,” said Wade, who had 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists, though on eight of 22 shooting. “Our guys came out tonight and competed; even when we got down in the second quarter, we continued to keep playing and gave ourselves a chance to win. We had it, a good opportunity.  Two mental mistakes by me, let (Trevor) Ariza tip the ball away (at the end of regulation) and from there that was the ballgame. These guys played phenomenal with a lot of heart and a lot of toughness. Our communication has been a lot better from everybody. It’s been good to see guys have big games and big moments for us and hit big shots. Everyone is enjoying each other’s success right now. If we compete that way every night, we are going to win more games than we lose.”

But right now for the Bulls it’s back under .500 at 25-26 instead of what would have been a brilliant start to the Western Conference road trip after the win in Oklahoma City Wednesday. Especially with Butler out from what the team said was a sore heel sustained late against the Thunder. Butler initially was scheduled to play, but taken out late. Butler will get an MRI Saturday, though Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said the Bulls were mostly being cautious and Butler was out before the game testing the sore heel. Cristiano Felicio did not return after halftime with a leg strain.

So after not playing four consecutive games and then just at the end of the blowout against the Thunder, Carter-Williams started for Butler and was terrific. He also tied his season high in rebounds, had a season high in assists, like with points, and defended Harden most of the game as Harden had one of his poorer shooting games of the season.

“Fred preaches when you get your chance, when your name is called, be ready to play,” said Carter-Williams. “I’ve been working my butt off trying to be ready. Whatever coach does. If I have to go back to the bench, that’s what I have to do. Of course, I want to play. Jimmy is going to be back, hopefully, next game. However or whenever I can help the team, that’s what I have to do.”

It’s a laudable sentiment, but also what makes deciding on this Bulls rotation so difficult.

Jerian Grant has shot well lately. He was a quiet two of four against the Rockets. So if Butler returns, does Grant go back to the bench? And if it’s back to the bench, it’s probably not playing the way Rajon Rondo has fused with the reserves. Rondo had three points, five rebounds and five assists, but also the defensive play of the game that brought everyone off the Bulls bench. That was late in the third quarter when Rondo deflected a Rockets pass into the backcourt and then chased it down, beating Gordon to the ball, wrestling it away from Gordon and then passing to Doug McDermott for a running dunk and 81-79 Bulls lead after three quarters. And what about Denzel Valentine performing well in the D-league with 34 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists and six threes Friday after 27 points and seven threes in his first game with Windy City?

McDermott had 12 points and Zipser and Nikola Mirotic had 11 each. Taj Gibson had 20 points, 12 in the third quarter when the Bulls turned around the game from a 60-49 halftime deficit.

I usually don’t note officials’ calls, but these for Harden were particularly egregious, especially given the abuse Bulls defenders took for standing near him. “Guess call the referee hot line,” joked Gibson.

But with all that, with the 17-point deficit, Harden’s 42 points, the fouls, no Butler for the game and no Felicio for half the game, the Bulls had the game, easily, to win in the last three minutes. The Rockets passing on layups to shoot threes, 43 of them in the game, were coming off a 20-point fourth quarter blown lead loss Thursday night and seemed ready to give in after losing the 17-point lead. A Carter-Williams driving layup, Wade three and Zipser step in 18 footer gave the Bulls a 108-100 lead with 2:45 left, their second eight-point lead in the last five minutes.

But it was a big time meltdown from there, the Bulls failing to score again as Wade committed a pair of turnovers and Zipser another. Robin Lopez came up way short on a hook shot out of a timeout, Wade badly missed a 20 footer and Harden’s step back with 27.3 seconds left in regulation tied it. He even had a chance for a winner at the buzzer that missed.

Jimmy, oh Jimmy, where art thou, brother?

“Everything is centered around Jimmy, the team’s best player,” noted Wade. “We go to him a lot. That’s not the reason we lost; we had a chance to win being up six when I got ripped by Ariza. We have to find a way to win that. We had our chances. Overtime, we had a lead. Just didn’t pull it out; not who wasn’t on the court.”

This didn’t figure to be one the Bulls would get against the fast shooting Rockets without Butler at the last minute. Hoiberg had actually declared him playing about an hour before the game. Without Butler and Wade a notoriously slow starter, the Bulls concentrated on the inside, which is the strategy to use against the smaller Rockets. Also to slow down their break. With Gibson operating inside, the Bulls opened up 8-3 ahead, fell back as they began to be lured into jump shots and still led 26-24 after one. If anything, the Bulls were enticed into playing the Rockets’ game. Houston is an impressive 37-17. But they are small and easy to attack inside with little rim protection or physical play.

Still, the Bulls fell for the trap and it looked bad for them when the Rockets hit them with a 15-0 second quarter run as Bulls jump shots bounced all over the place and the Rockets went ahead 52-35. The Bulls recovered a bit behind a pair of Carter-Williams driving scores to trail 60-49 at halftime with the lately little used point guard carrying the team.

It’s a unique and curious situation, and if there is consistency for Hoiberg it’s been if you play well, you play again. If you don’t excel—pretty much other than the four veteran starters—you’re sitting awhile.

The third quarter after the extended halftime for the retirement of Yao Mimg’s jersey number saw the Bulls returning to and sticking with that inside play. Gibson drove high scorer Ryan Anderson, who ended up scoreless, out of the game with his physical play. After having just a four-point edge in first half points in the paint, the Bulls bullied their way to the basket. Carter-Williams drove for a dunk, Gibson posted up up and went through Anderson again and then ran the court and took a bounce pass from Wade for another dunk. The Rockets tried Harden on Gibson and Gibson knocked him away like a pesky fly. And when Lopez blocked a Patrick Beverley drive, Wade threw ahead to Gibson again for another dunk and 69-69 tie with 5:10 left in the third quarter.

“Getting the ball out quick and pushing the ball,” said Gibson. “That’s my kind of basketball, getting the ball up and running and attacking. That’s how you have to play on the West Coast.

It looked pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good for the Bulls with the Rockets seemingly out of fuel.

Then the Bulls looked like they’d explode with a Mirotic three for an 84-79 lead early in the fourth quarter.

“I think guys are feeling a lot more encouraged,” said Gibson. “Guys are feeling good. A lot of guys had their number called tonight; that gives positive feedback. We understand we let one slide. We feel a little better about ourselves. The  mood after the game was we let one (get away), but guys are optimistic and getting ready for the next game.”

Asked about playing without Butler, Gibson cracked with a laugh, “The ball moves.
"Nah, it's tough when you got your closer missing,” the irrepressible Gibson said. “At times in the game I was, 'Yeah, it would be great to have Jimmy out there.' But we have some great guys. We got talented guys and we still got D-Wade taking the big shots late. We had the lead. Turn around and you got the refs calling every kind of ticky-tack foul for James Harden, it's really tough."

In the next several Bulls fourth quarter possessions with the Rockets basically firing blanks, McDermott made a pair of free throws and a jumper and ZIpser missed three wide open three pointers after sharp ball movement. The Bulls, however, still led 92-86 with 8:56 left. The Rockets went ahead 93-92, but Wade made a jumper and when he took a handoff from Gibson and drove for a forceful dunk with 4:52 left and a 101-93 Bulls lead you thought maybe. But it wasn’t enough.

Leading by six points with two minutes left, Wade tried to beat Ariza off the dribble and Ariza knocked the ball away and scored a fast break. With the Bulls hanging onto a 108-106 lead with 50 seconds left, Zipser faked from the right corner, drove and threw the ball past Gibson and out of bounds. And then after Harden tied the game with 27.3 seconds left in regulation, Wade got stripped again by Ariza for an eventual 24-second violation and Harden’s last shot at the winner before overtime.

“Ariza played really good defense on Dwyane, stripped it a few times,” noted Hoiberg. “We wanted to get it in our best player’s hands on the floor; that was Dwyane. He made some big plays for us in the fourth. Dwyane made a good kick and Paul made a nice drive to the basket and unfortunately didn’t convert at the basket. If we continue to compete like that, if our guys continue to play together we’ll be just fine.”