It's a New Year's Eve tradition to offer a toast and sing Auld Lang Syne, the Scottish poem by Robert Burns that asks in its opening whether it is right that old times be forgotten. For the Bulls, even with Sunday's last seconds 114-110 loss to the Washington Wizards, the old times seem buried.
The Bulls got 21 points from Nikola Mirotic and 19 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds from Kris Dunn. Three times in the fourth quarter after having lost the lead, the Bulls went back ahead with clutch shots from Dunn, Mirotic and Lauri Markkanen against a hot shooting Wizards team that got a career most seven threes from Bradley Beal and 39 points. The Bulls, conversely, shot an unusually poor eight of 35 on threes, but still rippled the nets for 63 first half points and 14 on the fast break with 24 assists.
But in the end it was the inability to get two offensive rebounds before a Beal three with 2:53 left to tie the score at 104. And then, shockingly, Beal missing two free throws with 19 seconds left and trailing 112-110. In a wild scramble after the second free throw in which the ball bounced around like it was being passed across a mosh pit, it was John Wall snatching it and playing the final funereal notes for the Bulls with a pair of free throws.
"It was loose balls and rebounds that won at the end," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "With Beal at the line we had a play drawn up. We weren't going to use the last timeout we had; go down and get a quick two or a three. Give our guys a lot of credit for coming out with great intensity early; the pace was unbelievable in that first half. If we continue to play with that type of effort like we have been the last month we'll be just fine."
The Bulls dropped to 13-23, though with just their third loss in the last 13 games. The Wizards moved to 21-16, extended to the end at home with both Wall and Beal playing more than 40 minutes and combining for 60 points to hold off the Bulls in a last possession.
The Bulls had seven players scoring in double figures with Robin Lopez getting 16, Markkanen, Justin Holiday and David Nwaba with 11 each as Markkanen had a team high nine rebounds, and Bobby Portis added 10 points. The Bulls had a 46-32 bench edge with Washington's Mike Scott scoring 17 points.
There has been no indication, people, that the old acquaintance we knew as the 3-20 Bulls will be brought to mind again.
"I don't know what is going on with the people," wondered Mirotic. "Do they want us to lose? Is everyone thinking, ‘OK, they are going to start to lose and everything is going to be like before?' No, I think we are finding a way to play basketball that everyone was expecting from us before; we're just playing fun basketball, sharing the ball, being consistent and competing. I can tell you right now if we continue to play this way and if we stay healthy with Zach (LaVine) back, we are going to have the options to be in the playoffs; there is no doubt about it. Trust me."
In Niko We Trust?
Could be on a coin from Montenegro; who knows?
The Bulls don't appear to be putting playoff tickets on sale quite yet. But they continue to play, if not perfectly and with some crucial defensive failures at times like at the close Sunday, with a spirit and competitiveness that was missing the first six weeks.
It was evident against the Wizards with a blueprint-for-success first half, passing with pace and determined driving, the Bulls with a 63-59 halftime lead despite three of 20 on threes; they led 38-30 after the first quarter despite two of 10 on threes.
"Usually when we shoot threes we're a really good team," said Dunn. "Today they didn't fall for us, but we still were scoring; it shows improvement in everybody's game to find ways to still keep it going without hitting threes. Every day you can't be a hero; I understand that. We gave ourselves a chance to win. They were able to make more plays down the stretch than us."
Dunn almost was a hero again, making a tough pullup 18 footer for a 110-107 Bulls lead with 54 seconds left; Wizards time out.
"I thought for the most part up until maybe that last minute we did a good job keeping our composure," said Hoiberg. "They blew the roof off the place a few times with shots and getting out in transition and we answered it. That's growth for our young team from where we were earlier in the season. But you just have to find a way to get those loose balls down the stretch to close out the game."
But it was crucial defensive breakdowns in the last minute with the Wizards getting a too easy Beal layup out of that timeout losing Holiday to get within a point with 50 seconds left. Dunn then dribbled up, was trapped and passed to Holiday in the right corner for a three. If it goes in maybe it's too much for the Wizards to overcome with about 35 seconds left. But off went the jet pack Wall with the rebound for a layup, Holiday vainly backpedaling amidst virtually no Bulls resistance and thus allowing Wall to get too deep and then committing the foul as Wall eased in the layup for the three-point play. Dunn tried to tie it with a jumper and missed—no hero this time, as he agreed—and the Bulls had to foul.
"They just play hard; they play very hard," Wall said about the Bulls. "They move well without the ball, guys just making shots. And they have one of the best second units in the league."
When Beal missed the first free throw with 19 seconds left the Bulls had a chance; when Beal inexplicably missed the second it turned out they didn't.
This was a game in which it was uncertain whether Dunn would even play after missing the Indiana win with knee tendinitis. But Dunn said he felt good enough to go after a pregame workout.
He was engaged immediately, passing to Markkanen for a driving dunk for a 16-11 lead and then with his own, splitting a double team and with a double pump dunk.
"If I'm going to go out there, go out there and play your game," said Dunn. "When you have an injury you really can't think about it or it will reflect on your game; so I just tried to go out and play my game."
The Bulls continued to drive it at the Wizards with 20 first quarter inside points and then into the second quarter. Portis got a rebound and dribbled 90 feet for a dunk, sending the Wizards into another timeout. Mirotic pump faked a jumper and then drove and dunked and Portis got a nifty pass from Dunn driving and scored on a reverse. The Bulls had their lead to a dozen in the second quarter.
"This team (has) the record they're not happy with, but they're much different now," agreed Wizards coach Scott Brooks. "They have shooters who can shoot within a split second and no space; they can just flat out play. Dunn and Markkanen are going to be special players in this league and they have Zach LaVine waiting."
But not quite yet.
The Wizards kept coming in the third quarter, the Bulls answering first going to Lopez for seven straight points and then big time Mirotic threes when Washington got within two points to get an 89-83 Bulls lead going into the fourth quarter. Though some ill-advised switches left Bulls big men too often caught on Wizards guards and Paul Zipser too often uncomfortably trying to defend Beal.
"This is a huge difference for this team now," said Mirotic. "We are not giving up; even we start losing, the guys from the bench, everybody is doing something. Without shooting great today we were there all the time; we shot terrible from three. But we had the good shots and good looks."
The Wizards finally got the lead at 94-93 for the first time since 6-5 with 8:23 left. Dunn then came out of the timeout driving for a dunk and was fouled. He made both and after a pair of Wizards misses with yet another offensive rebound (13 overall), Dunn made an 18 footer for a 97-94 Bulls lead with 7:33 left. Shortly thereafter, lost in the game, Dunn with 6:22 blundered aggressively with his fifth foul and had to go to the bench.
"That was my fault," Dunn admitted. "I thought I had three fouls; that's a silly mistake on me. I was pissed because we had good momentum going and that kind of took our momentum out of it a little bit. But the guys they kept fighting even with that silly mistake I made to keep the team in the ball game."
The Bulls had three turnovers in the next seven possessions with Dunn out and the score then tied at 101. There was a small physical exchange between Wall and Nwaba with 3:54 as Dunn returned to get Markkanen a good shot on top of the key for a three with 3:29 left for a 104-101 Bulls lead. Then there were those multiple tip outs on misses, both by Marcin Gortat and the second after throwing down Mirotic, that finally got Beal a three.
Mirotic was effectively physical inside late with a post up score and offensive rebound for a pair of free throws and a 106-104 Bulls lead. Beal's three gave the Wizards a 107-106 lead. Dunn then cleverly found Nwaba inside. He was fouled and made both for a 108-107 Bulls lead with 1:26. Beal finally missed a three and Dunn pulled up for his jumper with 54 seconds for what would be the Bulls last points of the game with a 110-107 lead.
And then the crazy bounces at the end that was magic for the Wizards.
"When you give a real good team like that second possessions, it's going to be hard to beat them down the stretch," Dunn acknowledged. "They just made more plays. These types of games are hard to swallow, but this group of guys, we're very positive. We understood we could have won this game even though in the previous couple of games we've been winning down the stretch; this one just happened to bite us."
They're planning for a happy new year.