And just like that after trailing by seven points with 43.3 seconds left in perhaps the most important game of the Bulls season Saturday, there was Jimmy Butler hustling over in front of a driving Reggie Jackson for what looked like an offensive foul, an amazing chance to get the ball back with 20.4 seconds left and a chance to tie and perhaps save the season.
Butler, however, was ruled a fraction of a second late, Jackson instead going to the free throw line for the clinching free throws in a 94-90 Pistons victory.
It left the Bulls two games behind eighth place Indiana for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with six games remaining.
“We’re aware of our situation,” said Pau Gasol. “The math is probably against us at this point. But we also have a mentality of continue to compete, continue to fight and give ourselves a chance.”
But that play among hundreds in a taut, tight, physical and furious game with 15 lead changes and 13 ties was also perhaps a metaphor for this Bulls season and their current circumstance. Close, but maybe a little bit too late to make enough of a difference to rescue a disappointing season.
“Tough to swallow,” agreed Butler, who was brilliant and tenacious in the absence of injured Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
Butler had the first triple double of his career with 28 points and career highs with 17 rebounds and 12 assists. He also had three steals and two blocks while mostly playing point guard. Gasol added 16 points and 14 rebounds, and Aaron Brooks had a good contribution with 14 points. But the Bulls lacked any substantial penetration and pace without Rose, frequently forcing up shots as the clock expired, and were taken advantage of inside without Gibson as Tobias Harris had 21 points to support Jackson’s 22.
The Bulls fell to 38-38.
“It was a crucial game for us,” said Mike Dunleavy. “Sets us back a long way. It was one we needed to get.”
The Pistons moved to 41-36, but gained the tiebreaker over the Bulls with a 3-1 series lead, two of the Bulls losses in overtime. It makes it almost impossible for the Bulls to overtake the Pistons as Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy was calling it the team’s most important game of the season beforehand. The Pistons have not made the playoffs since 2009. The Bulls have not missed the playoffs since 2008.
The Indiana Pacers are 40-36, though the Bulls own the tiebreaker. So there still is a chance for the Bulls as they play in Milwaukee Sunday.
“We need to win as many games as possible and we didn’t get this one, let it slip away,” said Butler. “We have to have this one tomorrow. We’re all optimistic here; everyone wants to find ourselves in the playoffs. I thought we competed. We did a great job on both ends of the floor tonight. That’s the way we have to play. If we play like that from here on out, we’ll give ourselves a great chance of winning a lot of games coming up.”
The Bulls did play one of their better, if not particularly efficient, games. They outrebounded the bigger Pistons and were dominant on the offense boards, showing the toughness and fight they’d lacked until the last few games. They had 10 blocks to two for Detroit, six steals and a 40-26 margin on inside points.
“If we defended like that throughout the year we would not have been in this position to begin with,” said Gasol. “If we continue to fight like this we are going to give ourselves a chance every game and that’s what we need to focus on.”
It’s all the Bulls have now in a season of disappointment, regret and confusion.
How did it come to this? Six games remaining and needing five or six of those wins to just have a chance to be the last team in the playoffs.
“I thought we did really compete,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We defended very well. I thought we got out of the gates well (17-12 start), had a good rhythm going. Then our pace got really slow, obviously. Not having a guy to get in and put pressure on the rim hurt us with Derrick out of the lineup, and you have to do that with that team, get by that line of defense. We lacked that tonight.
“They said Jimmy’s heels (on that last crucial play) were above the line and there was not enough evidence to overturn the call,” Hoiberg added.
Butler had picked his heels up, but they were hanging over the restricted zone line, which means like a touchdown in football it was over the plane. The officials were allowed to review it to determine if Butler was outside and could change the call. They could not and the Pistons closed it out after Butler missed a three. Butler had a dunk at the end for the final score. But it was a discouraged Bulls team that trudged from the floor. And, again, not knowing who was going down next.
Butler hurt his ribs trying to draw that offensive foul and would be examined Sunday as the team left for Milwaukee after the game. Rose and Gibson remained uncertain for Sunday. Joakim Noah, obviously, is out for the season. It was a contrast to a Pistons team healthy and having added key players in the past year of Marcus Morris and Harris. They both played vital roles with Morris adding 16 points and without Gibson and Noah, the Bulls having trouble defending them. It resulted in fewer minutes for Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, who combined to shoot just three of 12 for a combined 10 points.
Butler was spectacular, getting steals to disrupt the Pistons offense, attacking the defensive boards to outplay the league’s second best rebounding team and driving the strongest to the basket since he injured his knee two months ago. Though Butler has a big number of assists, he and Gasol essentially stopped the offense in their two-man game late as well as Butler not attacking other than when trying to score. It was hardly his fault as he was the emergency fill in at point guard, and without him the Bulls might have lost by 30. But the offense went back to a grind.
“Jimmy did a great job; we were going to him a lot,” noted Dunleavy. “Had the ball in his hands a lot, made plays for himself that were good. I just think the whole game we needed to move the ball a little bit more. That’s what we are trying to do as a team. It gets tough; the ball gets bogged down. Against a team like that, well coached, guys are in the rights spots and it puts a lot of pressure on one or two guys to get it going. From that standpoint, if you go back I guess you’d like to move the ball a little better. But otherwise I thought we defended well enough and just came up a little bit short.”
Once again, if it isn’t one thing it’s another.</P.
Shots rolled in and out.
E’Twaun Moore spun a three in and out with 90 seconds left that would have tied the game at 86. Dunleavy just missed a dazzling out of bounds save a play later after a Jackson miss. McDermott had two point blank layups roll off the rim.
“We missed a couple that hit every part of the rim and unfortunately bounced out,” lamented Hoiberg. “We missed a couple of threes like that and a couple inside like that. E’Twaun’s shot hit every part of the rim to tie it; unfortunately, it couldn’t quite get there. It happens. Some nights are like that. Unfortunately in a game that was probably as important as any all year. Not a good night to take place.”
If only, which has been a mantra for this disheartening Bulls season.
Yet with everything that’s happened, the injuries, the disputes, the frustrating losses, here were the Bulls with a pair of tough road wins and the Pistons coming in on the second of a back to back to perhaps pull themselves back into the playoffs with a win. Certainly to make these last six games meaningful.
The Bulls got a good start behind Gasol’s shooting and Butler with six first quarter assists. The Bulls led by six and by 27-26 after one quarter. They were physical on defense. Gasol was winning the battle with Drummond, who’d dominated the Bulls previously. And later when the Bulls intentionally fouled him and Drummond missed nine of 10 free throws, he was pulled for the last 5:22 with Detroit leading 80-77.
Brooks put in some of his more unusual driving, head scratching, how-did-he-do that scoops. And Cristiano Felicio again provided some nice relief in 14 minutes. But the reserves couldn’t get involved on offense and in the fourth quarter Butler had 14 of the 16 points scored by the starters.
“Jimmy was great,” said Gasol. “Unfortunately, we could not get the reward, which was the win to go along with his triple double. But he was pretty much all over the place, making plays offensively, defensively, rebounding, extremely active, trying to make up for the absences of guys not able to play. He had an incredible individual game and it is going to require that type of effort. You are not always going to get a triple double, but with the effort and mindset of making plays for yourself and the team and that’s what Jimmy did tonight."
“Very difficult (with the injuries) in times of need like we are right now,” Gasol added. “You are not going to have all the guys all the time, but you can say we have a few guys are important to our team and they can make a big difference if they were healthy, if they were to play. Unfortunately, that was not the case.”
The Bulls had long fallow periods in the second and third quarters when they combined to score 38 points, falling behind Detroit 70-65 after three. The Pistons were good closing out and running both Mirotic and McDermott off the three-point line and then taking them into the post, forcing substitutions. Brooks had that nice run to end the third quarter with the Bulls last seven points to keep the team close. But in 12 minutes spanning the second and third quarters, Mirotic was scoreless after back-to-back big scoring games and McDermott was one of four in about 10 minutes.
“It was taking us too long; we were fighting the shot clock a lot tonight,” said Hoiberg. “We weren’t getting it over and getting the opportunity to cut as much as we would have liked; got to improve on our pace tomorrow and hopefully we will get Derrick back soon.”
The Pistons led most of the fourth quarter, but mostly by little more than a basket. The Pistons committed a flagrant foul on Butler on a breakaway in one of several hard falls he endured. His free throw brought the Bulls within 77-75 with 7:46 left. But Mirotic then missed a three to go ahead.
Butler had another power drive to score, beating down his defender and reminiscent of his play in early season games when he was scoring 40 or 50 points. That last one brought the Bulls within 82-81 with 4:25 left. But this time the Bulls could not make that one big shot. Dunleavy missed and then Butler missed. Jackson made a tough drive for an 86-83 Detroit lead with 1:46 left.
Moore’s three spun out, Jackson missed, but then Butler forced up a liner that missed as the Bulls offense slowed again. Harris then put back a Jackson miss and Butler missed on a drive. Morris was then fouled on a loose ball with 49.5 seconds left. He made both free throws for a 90-83 lead. Over? Not yet.
Butler made his first three after six misses and then Jackson was called for an offensive foul on the inbounds. Butler was fouled and made both and with 38.9 seconds left the Bulls were back in it, trailing 90-88. Jackson blew out of the backcourt, Butler jumped in and…and…and…the call did not go for the Bulls.
“If you look at how close the game was, every single bucket was important,” noted Van Gundy. “We were running uphill, but so were they. If you go back and watch film of that game, you will see on every free throw eight of the 10 guys holding their shorts. Jimmy Butler was exhausted from having to do so much and play so many minutes. He’s running on fumes. They fought like hell, too. A lot of guys knew how important this game was and wanted to win it. Not much separated our two teams this year. We ended up with three wins, one four-overtime, an overtime and tonight. I have a lot of respect for how hard their guys fought with guys out. I have a lot of respect for how hard our guys fought on the second night of a back to back. Respect for both locker rooms.”
In only one were they smiling.