It’s good to have a plan; it’s better to have good fortune. And so it seemed for the Bulls Monday in a 90-85 victory over the Indiana Pacers. The uncertain Nikola Mirotic with the Bulls about to blow a 16-point lead knocked down a step back 23 footer with a second left on the shot clock for an 88-85 lead with 21.2 seconds left in the game, Mirotic finishing with a season high 20 points and uncharacteristically pounding his chest as he ran back to the huddle.
“Tough shot,” he agreed. “I know I can make those shots; not the first time in my career, but it’s the first time here. I used to make those shots in Europe. Maybe it is not the best shot at the end of the game; sometimes you need to do what the defense is asking. It was really emotional for me. It was really important for me, for the team. I knew it was great shot, probably the game was there. I was just expressing myself a little bit. I know you guys are not used to (seeing) that, but it was a day to express that emotion. I was feeling great and after I hit that good shot; why not?”
Well, it wasn’t quite over, especially for a Bulls team working on nine losses in their last 12 games and three straight. The Pacers’ Paul George had just before Mirotic’s shot made a three to get the Pacers within one with 45.3 seconds left in the game. Aaron Brooks, who led the Pacers with 19 points, inbounded to George. His step back three with Jimmy Butler all over him came up short, air ball. But it was caught by Thaddeus Young, who dribbled out and handed to Brooks with 10 seconds left in the game. You could see Dwyane Wade, the oldest player on the floor and also not having left the floor in the fourth quarter, in the lane eying Brooks, who was looking for a three-point shooter on top. He fired cross court to C.J. Miles. But there came Wade to tip the ball into the backcourt, run it down and dunk with 1.2 seconds left to close out the Pacers.
“Just reading it,” said Wade, who led the Bulls with 21 points. “Kind of played free safety on that one; baited him to throw it a little. They got that offensive rebound and guys did a great job closing and Michael Carter (Williams) (closed the passing lane) and then I played possum a little bit, let him loft it up there and I was able to get a steal and kind of close the game. Total team effort; everyone played their part, did their thing. So it feels great when it happens that way.”
Even if it was the most unlikely of conclusions.
It certainly was a relief for the Bulls, who started fast and then slowed into a similar rut, leading by 13 points in the first quarter, as much as 16 in the second, and then another brutal, isolation-oriented, walk-it-up, individual offense third quarter with the usual 25 percent shooting, half dozen turnovers and just a 63-61 lead to start the fourth quarter. Which we know hasn’t generally gone well lately, the Bulls being outscored 15 of the last 16 of those.
But this time with some new rotations, Carter-Williams (4-0 as a Bull; though no one is declaring him a savior quite yet as he had one point) and Jerian Grant playing the fourth quarter with Rajon Rondo sitting. And with Mirotic joining Wade as the 12-minute men, the Bulls never lost the lead. Indiana got within two points several times, but there was a Grant three and nice pose afterward for a 78-74 lead with 5:15 left.
Then Butler barged in for a pair of free throws with 1:26 left to make it 84-80. That came after a big time Butler steal from George with the Bulls hanging onto the two-point lead with 1:36 left. And then, of course, Mirotic’s most unlikely and well guarded jumper to stave off depression.
“Our guys made some big time plays, hit some big time shots. But they were tough shots,” acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “You want to get easier looks at the basket in the fourth. I thought earlier in the fourth our pace was pretty good and then it slowed down and we had to work for everything we got; we’ll continue to work on it. We’re making strides. Obviously, we didn’t shoot it great, six for 25 from the three-point line, 38 percent overall. But we won that game with toughness and rebounding.”
That toughness and rebounding, the Bulls with a 47-41 rebounding edge and 14-3 on second chance points, has been the formula for the Bulls. But it’s led to .500 type ball, the Bulls moving to 15-16. The Pacers are 15-17.
The Bulls need some more and got it Monday from Mirotic, who five games ago was benched for two games in a career worst scoring and shooting season. Since then Mirotic has scored in double figures every game, averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds and making 13 three pointers.
Mirotic made two three pointers in the first quarter when the Bulls took a 28-19 lead. And then he was vital in the fourth quarter with that late shot plus a tough offensive rebound and reverse for a 69-64 lead and then a dive for the rim on a pass from Wade to put the Bulls ahead 76-66 on a layup with 7:12 left.
“We just want him to be aggressive,” Wade said of Mirotic. “We've been trying to put him in different spots on the floor the last few games. He’s been getting better looks. We need him to win; it’s as simple as that. We need him to play big. He knows we believe and trust in him. He made big shots and obviously made the biggest one at the end; we needed that and he made it big time.”
Doug McDermott was out with a shin injury, but the Bulls got Carter-Williams back from near season long ankle and wrist injuries and he added a second tough on ball defender to Butler and another point guard to push the ball and distribute, which has often been lacking with endless isolation plays.
It was Carter-Williams getting the ball moving after the Pacers got back within 84-82 with 1:16 left, driving into the lane and passing to Taj Gibson for a 16 footer with 52.4 seconds to go and an 86-82 lead. Too often lately, those sorts of drives in the fourth quarter have ended with difficult, off balance shots with everyone watching. This time they were moving and it paid off. Yes, the little things that cannot be measured statistically.
“I was looking at the rim and then I saw guys running at me like I was Kyle Korver or something,” Carter-Williams said with a laugh. “I took what the defense gave, penetration. I saw Taj and he made a great shot and it was a big shot for us. I didn’t want to settle; get some penetration and get someone open. It’s important for us to keep the ball moving, get in the paint and find open guys; that’s one of the things coach has preached.”
It’s been perhaps the team’s greatest flaw thus far, sort of an innocent desperation. Things turn bad, guys take it on themselves to try to bail out the team. It’s a positive, the stuff of competitiveness, of caring about the result and your teammates. But it can prove counterproductive, as it often does for the Bulls. This time with better and more frequent movement and more scoring options late, the Bulls had 27 fourth quarter points, five above their league low average. Even with Carter-Williams shooting zero for five.
“It was great to have him back,” said Wade. “Missed that guy; he’s a versatile defender, can guard multiple guys and can run the offense for you and take pressure off me. With the second unit I can become a two guard, which is good, and he’s somebody once he penetrates can see the floor because he’s 6-7 or whatever. It wasn’t a perfect game, but as soon as he came in the game you saw he dove on the floor; his presence was felt. We needed that.”
The Bulls also got some brilliant play from Rondo early, three offensive rebounds on one possession that led to a Mirotic three and 22-14 lead. Rondo had nine rebounds and five assists in 24 minutes.
Butler had 16 points on three of 12 shooting playing George after Kawhi Leonard Sunday. George was just six of 14 and complained afterward—as did Pacers coach Nate McMillan—of Butler shooting 12 free throws and 28 for the Bulls to a total of 10 for Indiana. Though the Pacers do shoot a lot of jump shots. Especially George these days after his broken leg injury.
The Bulls’ defense was more lively with better rotations, including with Mirotic. Robin Lopez was determined on the offensive boards and, at least early, the Bulls moved the ball around. It broke down after halftime, but some young legs in the fourth quarter, a bit more shooting and movement and a few fortunate plays was just enough.
“We needed a win,” said Wade. “It was a good way to get it; just fighting it out. Good win and good team effort. We’ve played well. We just haven’t played well long enough. As long as we continue to understand we’ll be all right.”