The Bulls 124-120 overtime loss Monday to the Portland Trailblazers was painful, the second straight game the Bulls led in the last minute of regulation. But it perhaps was more another vivid demonstration of why basketball is so much like a fickle lover, unpredictable, capricious and oh so appealing.
Sunday in Washington with the Bulls trying to counter the Wizards' high scoring guards, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg matched Washington with his long range forwards, Nikola Mirotic and Lauri Markkanen, only to see pivotal tip rebounds by center Marcin Gortat to earn Washington extra possessions that turned into winning plays. So Monday with Portland center Jusuf Nurkic donating the boards, Hoiberg sat out Mirotic most of the fourth quarter and overtime for Robin Lopez. Nurkic was mostly neutralized late, but the Bulls couldn't offset C.J. McCollum's six overtime points among his 27 after half-time.
Kris Dunn, who led the Bulls with 22 points and seven rebounds but with eight turnovers, had two chances after Lauri Markkanen with 19 points tied the game at 120 with 1:14 left in overtime. McCollum's floater gave the Trailblazers a lead with 56.5 seconds in the overtime. Dunn made crucial shots at the end of the fourth quarter, including a theatric spin and floater for a 112-108 Bulls lead with 1:27 left. Though with three more chances in regulation, including a Markkaken three with 17.7 seconds left that looked like the winner, the Bulls had to play on.
Dunn missed an open elbow jumper with 48 seconds left in overtime and the Bulls trailing by two. And then after a Portland miss, Dunn missed a 10 footer that came up short of the rim. It seemed an obvious foul by peewee Shabazz Napier, starting for injured Damian Lillard. The Bulls had to foul and McCollum made two free throws for the final margin.
"When I came off the screen, I was trying to give Rolo (Lopez) the pocket pass, and they did a good job with that," Dunn explained. "And then I was trying to look for the kickoff to the guys. Credit to them; they got back to them. I saw I was deep in the paint and I felt I was bigger than my guard guarding me and I tried to rise over. But I didn't get my legs under me and I didn't shoot the shot correctly and that's on me."
"I don't really remember," said Dunn. "I don't get into that."
Win with class, lose with class? Still hurts, though.
"It's tough, it hurts," agreed Hoiberg. "When you do have some success closing out close games, the last two nights we haven't done it. We have not gotten the job done. It hurts, it stings. Especially after having seven in a row where we did close out a lot of those close games. We've got to learn throughout the season, throughout these close games. Which I give our guys a lot of credit for bouncing back after a really tough stretch to close a lot of close games. Now we've got to get it back."
The Bulls dropped to 13-24, though still with wins in 10 of their last 14 games. The loss broke a seven-game home winning streak. The Trailblazers are 19-17.
The Bulls also got 15 points from Lopez, 14 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes from Bobby Portis, 14 points from Justin Holiday and 10 points, seven rebounds and slick playmaking with six assists and two steals from Denzel Valentine. Then there was the 18 points and 10 rebounds from Mirotic in just under 19 minutes.
With plenty of post game questions about why Mirotic didn't play the last 12:34. And, perhaps perfectly crystallizing the plight of the coach, wrong whenever the team loses. Hoiberg adjusted from what hurt the Bulls most in the narrow loss in Washington Sunday. And then Monday was questioned about why he didn't do what he did Sunday that everyone said he shouldn't have done. Because, well, they lost.
Mirotic, for his part, didn't fall into the media trap of blaming his not playing for the loss, only furthering his value for the Bulls with growing professionalism.
"Obviously, I wish I was there playing," said Mirotic. "I had a little issue after the second quarter with my my rib (wearing a heating pad). I felt good in the third quarter, making some shots. Fred just chose to play with Lauri and Lopez, which was great. Everybody wants to play, obviously. Coach has to make a decision. Sometimes, for example, Rolo was playing really good in Washington the beginning and the third quarter and basically he didn't play the fourth quarter. Today, I was really good. I felt like the team was playing well with me on the court, but there was nothing wrong going with Lauri and Rolo. If we win that game everything will be different on Niko is not there.
"I am always positive," Mirotic added. "I never let my teammates, the coaching staff down. It is what it is; we need to keep moving forward and we will be fine."
It perhaps was further growth, not complaining about one late missed call, not being selfish about your playing time.
And it was a game decided as much by serendipity as skill.
There was plenty of skill with fabulous shotmaking, though from unlikely Trailblazers. Evan Turner, who does seem to awake in games back home in Chicago, tripled his regular season average with 22 points. Though the big shots down the stretch were threes by Al-Farouq Aminu, two in the last two minutes of regulation and one early in overtime that gave Portland a four-point lead.
Granted Aminu is shooting threes well this season. But he's a career 30 percent shooter in seven previous seasons, a player you want taking those shots in pressure situations. The Bulls get the Portland player least likely to make a big shot taking them down the stretch and he makes them, hitting five of seven threes overall. Then Markkanen, who was four of six on threes, misses one that probably wins the game you still can't believe didn't go in.
"That shot he took that would have put us up in the end, that was right there," Hoiberg ached about the Markkanen three. "Just another centimeter (and) that thing's in the basket. Hit a couple of big shots for us in the overtime, as well, to keep us right there in striking distance. The kid is going to be an unbelievable player."
The Bulls are developing a core of guys making big plays, taking big shots and risks. Like Dunn, who is proving irreplaceable. Though he had an uncertain start with a rush of turnovers in a lethargic Bulls start that had them trailing 23-13 after the New Year's Eve return from Washington. They got back within 31-23 after one quarter. And the bench with a 40-24 edge Monday mobilized the roster behind Portis' hustle to take the lead midway through the second quarter.
"Kris had four turnovers in the first half, three in the first quarter. A couple of those were offensive fouls and then we got a little careless with it there at the end," noted Hoiberg. "Kris made a lot of good plays out there as well for our team. Hit some big shots. We'll watch those turnovers and get that fixed up."
It was a terrific game thereafter, both teams shooting well and passing, the Bulls with 28 assists, a Western Conference style game with open play and few stoppages for free throws. The Bulls had a 16-4 edge in fast break points. They led 53-52 at halftime and 87-83 going into the fourth quarter after a track meet third quarter in which Portis and Mirotic continued to play off one another beautifully, Portis with two offensive rebounds on one possession and then passing to Mirotic for a three. Later, Mirotic passed up a three attempt to find Portis rolling for a layup.
Valentine was excellent in the fourth quarter running the offense, making split second decision passes through tiny openings for scores and then making a runner with 2:37 in regulation for a 108-102 Bulls lead that looked like it might be decisive.
"I just thought with Nurkic out there we needed to find a way to keep him off the glass," said Hoiberg. "He is just too big and strong out there. I felt we needed Robin, who was also playing well. He (Aminu) hit some unbelievable shots; he has not been shooting the ball great. Give him credit he knocked down some big ones."
And it became a big one for the Bulls that just barely got away.
"A game like this there was a lot of back and forth, both teams making big shots down the stretch," said Dunn. "When it comes to winning close games we've done it before; comes down to who gets the more stops and they did. Like I said, we're clicking right now. We're playing good basketball. These two losses, they definitely hurt. When they're down the stretch, and you feel like you can win the games, it's hard to swallow. But we're playing good basketball, and I like what we're doing so far."
Got to love it.