Yes, the Bulls Saturday were playing fast and loose in a noisy hall, not quite the nightly brawl, but fierce, nonetheless, in defeating all those Jazz 95-86.
It was quite the swinging evening; not a night for singing the blues this time. And perhaps a time to get some rhythm going in this season that’s been hopping around and not very hip. For it was those much discussed, if often disappointing, young guys, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Michael Carter-Williams, among others, who made sweet sounds on the basketball court and impressed the opposition.
Sure, Jimmy Butler was vital with 23 points and seven assists, including a fabulous defensive play against Gordon Hayward with 53.8 seconds left that thwarted the Jazz’ last hopes. Robin Lopez added 14 points in another understated effort. But it was a career high 22 points from Portis off the bench, making 10 of 13 shots, 11 points and 12 rebounds for Denzel Valentine for his first double/double of the season and nine points, a team best plus-17 and pressuring defense from Carter-Williams that made a big difference. And all playing at least 26 minutes.
“They had a lot of energy,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said about the Bulls’ kids. “Valentine made big shots, Portis was good, and Michael Carter-Williams was good. All those guys, I thought, played very well. They played with a lot of heart.”
Added Jazz center Rudy Gobert: “The young guys on the Bulls’ second unit came out with a lot of energy.”
Too late? We’ll know soon enough as the Bulls moved to 33-37, still 10th in the Eastern Conference and a game and a half out of seventh.
“I don’t know what place we’re in,” said Butler. “But I know we’re outside trying to get in; keep winning.”
That’s right. When the regular season ends, they’ll let you know if you have any more games. So just keep playing.
The Bulls did so with another strong finish, like they did in Washington Friday, though that was a loss. This time after trailing virtually the entire first three quarters and by 64-61 entering the fourth, the Bulls outhustled, outshot, outran and outplayed the Jazz down the stretch for the victory.
It was primarily with Portis, Valentine and Carter-Williams defending and scoring 25 of the team’s 34 fourth quarter points. Valentine made three three pointers in the quarter, Portis hit four of five shots and Carter-Williams’ pressure on the ball disrupted the Jazz’ offense. Perhaps it was an aberration, though it also may have been an indication of what players can do with confidence.
This time they did, and since that balky start against Washington it’s actually been a Bulls team with swifter ball movement, less standing around and a core of young players able to establish some consistency.
“They (Portis and Valentine) are both going to go out there and play their tails off,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “They are not afraid of the moment. They are going to have ups and downs. Denzel hung with it even when the ball wasn’t falling early, had a lot of in and out shots. But hit few huge threes for us tonight at the start of the fourth quarter and played meaningful minutes down the stretch and that’s valuable for him and his future. Michael can disrupt the ball, him picking up the pressure. I thought he changed the pace of the game when he went out there; pressuring and getting hands on balls I thought was a turning point in the game.”
It’s perhaps a look the Bulls may finally have settled upon with Dwyane Wade now out for the season. While Wade can score with his jumper and provide an option during scoring droughts, he tends to hold onto the ball and slow things. Butler doesn’t seem to do it as much without Wade, leaving the pace more to Rajon Rondo. And then the court gets spread somewhat more with three-point shooting from Valentine and Nikola Mirotic.
Mirotic was surprisingly back in the starting lineup Saturday after a week ago falling out of the rotation.
“I'm still here, in the starting lineup,” Mirotic said. “Who could say that? It's crazy. But I'm here. I know most of you (media) guys are surprised to see me starting. I agree.”
Mirotic had minimal impact in 17 minutes, but his shooting threat helped open the driving lanes for Butler. Butler had a nifty drive for a three-point play on an inside pass from Joffrey Lauverge with 3:58 left to give the Bulls an 85-79 lead.
“The court gets spread,” said Butler about playing with Valentine and Mirotic. “Tonight was also a better switching lineup because of that personnel. When you are playing out there with shooters it makes your job easier.”
Actually, it was Wade and Butler who lobbied for more playing time for Mirotic after the uncompetitive loss in Boston last week. And though the Bulls will miss Wade’s professionalism, they get more activity in the lineup. Hoiberg stuck pretty much to a classic eight-player late season rotation with Cristiano Felicio and Lauvergne getting spot minutes for matchups. It might be both a formula to make a late run and an opportunity for some of these young players to show if and what they have.
Portis as well, who took over as a starter with the trade of Taj Gibson, but who stumbled of late in that role. He went back to the bench and came out with his best game of the season playing 31 minutes and the entire fourth quarter. Valentine and Carter-Williams also played the entire fourth. Their energy and effort were a palpable difference from some of the slow motion closes during the season. The Bulls again had a big edge in fast break points at 17-5 even if they continued to give up too many offensive rebounds, this time 17.
“Just out there being myself for a change,” said Portis. “I feel like the last couple games I was just kind of hesitant to shoot. I got to get that out of my system. I worry too much about shooting too much. At the same time. Probably just thinking too much (before) and not playing the game the way the game is supposed to be played. If the game says shoot, shoot. If the game says pass, pass. I was not following that.
“I don’t feel like I lost my spot,” said Portis. “Coaches experiment with a lot of things. We’ve been in a slump with losing. I’ve learned coaches change when you start losing and he just changed it up.”
Perhaps for the better; we shall continue to see.
It was another haggard start for the Bulls, trailing 15-4 a few minutes into the game. But while the Jazz is a mid-level Western Conference contender at 43-27, they play a slow pace and generally won’t run away. The Bulls went into Lopez to solidify the offense and then saw a determined Portis find the range. The Bulls trailed 23-16 after one quarter.
The Bulls got right back in on Portis’ mid range shooting to start the second quarter. Though the Jazz was dominating on the boards and getting the loose balls the Bulls also fumbled away in Washington, the Jazz only led 44-40 at halftime.
Rajon Rondo gave the offense some thrust to open the second half and the Bulls took a 55-50 lead, Rondo going full court on a drive for one score. Rondo is one assist away from being the 35th player ever with 6,000 assists. Though not in one game. Utah crept ahead 56-55 and settled for that three-point lead after three. And despite the last of five games in seven nights, the Bulls were the active and aggressive ones in the fourth quarter in taking the game.
One crucial play was good fortune as Gobert blocked a Lauverge shot that went right to Valentine in the corner. He didn’t hesitate and made a three. He doesn’t hesitate shooting very much.
“The biggest shot was the offensive rebound that Valentine hit,” said Snyder.
It gave the Bulls an 82-77 lead with 4:32 left.
“We wanted to prove that we are still a playoff team, that we are still a good team,” said Valentine. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Then came Butler’s driving score as Butler looks energized again. Butler had a drive and drop-off for a Lopez 10 footer for an 87-83 lead with 2:36 left. And then after a George Hill miss, Carter-Williams scored over Gobert and was fouled, his three-point play giving the Bulls a crucial 90-83 lead with two minutes left.
Carter-Williams also has been often out of the rotation. But in coming back he’s done what seems so easy but few do. He picks up defensively at half-court and even in the backcourt sometimes. He harasses the ball handler. He plays like he cares. He’s not the strongest finisher with the ball, but his defense on the ball has been something that has too often been missing this season all around. It’s likely why he’s pushed Jerian Grant out of the rotation.
The Jazz had one more shot at it after a Hill three-point play with 1:14 left to get within 92-86. It was Carter-Williams then trying to hit a cutting Butler. The ball went behind Butler and the Jazz picked it off for a fast break by their star, Gordon Hayward. Carter-Williams backpeddled to slow Hayward. But it was Butler flying back, stripping the ball from Hayward and then saving it and getting it back to Valentine before Butler went out of bounds. A true game saver.
Butler was having none of it, saying dinner was waiting.
“It started with Michael making him alter his layup for me to get back in there and get my hand on it, grab it,” said Butler. “Just great hustle on everyone’s part getting back. Without Mike getting back first, he probably would have gotten a dunk or layup.”
Maybe not quite time to paint the town yet, but it turned out for this group of Bulls the Jazz wasn’t all that. At least this time. Time to shake apart for a brand new start? And make your own music.