The Bulls appear in transition, though the Indiana Pacers just about doubled them in fast break points Friday in the Pacers 111-101 win over the Bulls.
“We’ll evaluate,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Obviously we have some decisions to make moving forward with our team.”
That transitional response came with Hoiberg’s decision to bench Rajon Rondo for the entire second half, Rondo not playing a half when healthy for the first time as a Bull. Hoiberg also played Cristiano Felicio more than Robin Lopez much of the second half and finished with Felicio, who helped the Bulls rebound from a 14-point first quarter deficit to tie the game at 95 with 6:03 left in the game on a Michael Carter-Williams three-point play.
Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 25 points and Dwyane Wade had 20. But Carter-Williams, playing for Rondo, had season highs of 12 points and eight rebounds. Felicio had his first career double/double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. The Bulls thus had a 44-28 bench advantage.
But it was yet another lethargic start for the Bulls as the Pacers, who lost in the United Center Monday, sped ahead 15-4 in the first three minutes, and leading 26-12 nine minutes into the game.
So Hoiberg tried some big changes this time. Rondo had been benched for the fourth quarter Monday against the Pacers after the Bulls nearly blew a 16-point lead in that win. Though Hoiberg declined to commit himself, the indication seemed to be he’ll shake up the starting lineup. Michael Carter-Williams figures to start Saturday against the Bucks, who dominated the Bulls in back to back games two weeks ago.
Hoiberg said Lopez would start Saturday, but perhaps with limited room for error. Lopez had two points and two rebounds in the game and was scoreless in nine second half minutes with Felicio finishing. Felicio was coming off nine rebounds in 11 minutes in Wednesday’s win over the Nets. His seven consecutive points on a tip in and two slam dunks early in the fourth quarter got the Bulls back into the game after they trailed 84-73 to start the fourth quarter.
Nikola Mirotic then made a three on a Wade pass — Wade led the Bulls with five assists, but the Bulls totaled just 17, which Indiana's Jeff Teague had on his own — and the Bulls pulledwithin 90-85 with nine minutes left.
They looked poised to steal a game they’d trailed throughout with their new look.
The Pacers got a three from new nemesis Aaron Brooks, but the Bulls defense then stiffened. Mirotic made his second consecutive three - this after missing his first six - to get the Bulls within 93-88 with 8:03 left. C.J. Miles missed and Wade then missed a long jumper. The Bulls got the long rebound. But Mirotic’s pass to Wade inside went awry. Reaching awkwardly for it, Wade stumbled and fell on his left wrist and left the game. He returned, but his status was unclear for Saturday’s back to back in the midst of this latest three-in-four-nights set.
Still, the Bulls tied it at 95 with Carter-Williams rebounding his own misses twice and scoring, his activity obviously exceptional. Butler matched a Pacers score with a full court drive with 4:51 left for a tie at 97.
“Proud of the way the guys competed,” said Hoiberg. “Fought their way back into it to tie the game; unfortunately, just couldn’t quite get over the hump.”
Or Paul George, mostly. The Pacers’ star, who would finish with 32 points after being fined by the NBA following the loss to the Bulls earlier this week for saying the Pacers were slighted on foul calls, took over. He was fouled by Butler shooting a three and then added a driving score when Mirotic dropped off instead of helping. That came after a Wade driving score. The Pacers led 102-99 with 2:52 remaining. Mirotic missed long and Teague lobbed to Thaddeus Young for a score and five-point Indiana lead. Butler was called for an offensive foul. Young got one of two free throws before a Wade driving runner. Indiana led 105-101 with 1:43 left.
Teague missed long and Wade came up with a tough rebound. But he went full court and missed a runner. Indiana bolted out with the rebound, which would prove decisive. Carter-Williams fouled Young dribbling out. No one got back for the Bulls, a frequent issue lately. With George running with him, the officials called a clear path foul. That resulted in a pair of free throws and Pacers possession with 1:07 left. George spun against Butler on the left wing and made a jumper and suddenly it was 109-101 Indiana with under a minute left and the Bulls left to figure out where to go next. Other than back to Chicago.
The Bulls slipped to 16-17 and tied for the last playoff spot in the East with the Bucks. The Pacers rose to 16-18, a half game behind in 10th.
“We decide to do things the right way, it looks beautiful out there,” said Butler. “We don’t, you see how it looks. We’re not doing it purposefully. At times, people forget their assignments; it seems every time we mess up an assignment the other team capitalizes. I’ve never seen anything like it. Our play at the very end was frustrating because we came all the way back. Credit Paul George. He’s a heck of a player and can definitely finish. He’s a tough matchup for anybody.
It looks like that change may be Rondo after Mirotic took a seat on the bench for those two Bucks games earlier this month. Mirotic returned and scored in double figures every game until Friday, when he went two of 11 on threes. Hoiberg liked Carter-Williams defense, though Wade did most of the playmaking, especially in an early second quarter stint with the reserves when the Bulls got within 48-44. Though Indiana again pulled away to lead 62-50 at halftime, their season high points for a half.
Hoiberg said Rondo was upbeat and cheering his teammates throughout the second half despite not playing. Jerian Grant backed up Carter-Williams in the second half.
“He was a great teammate to those guys on the floor,” said Hoiberg. “He was leading the cheers over there on the bench. We’ll evaluate on the way back and make a decision.”
Rondo seemed non plussed by the decision, saying as a veteran player he’s seen and experienced most everything in the NBA.
“We’re doing the best we can; we’re not trying to tank things,” he said. “Chemistry is good some games; some games it’s not. Trust the pass and defensively continue to get back in transition; that’s been one of our weaknesses all season. I’ll stay in the gym every day. It’s not like I’m not going to continue to work hard. I’m going to lead these guys when I can, talk to my teammates, be professional.
“I’ll have to watch the film,” said Rondo. “I don’t think I was aggressive enough (to start). I always try to take what the defense gives me, not force things, get guys involved. I’ll try to figure out if my defensive intensity was there or not. He's the coach. He and Jim (assistant Boylen) made some decisions. It happened. It's not life and death. Life is too short to be unhappy. It's part of it. If I start tomorrow, great. If I don't, as long as we get the win that's what matters."
It’s hardly just Rondo, and Carter-Williams isn’t a particularly good shooter. Doug McDermott, who is, had 10 points in 29 minutes. But he got just four shots and made both his threes.
"Doug's a guy teams are going to hug on the perimeter, especially when he hits a couple,” said Hoiberg. “Doug's man doesn't leave him much. Try to get him some in transition, which I think we did in the first half. When his man sinks in to be the help guy, we have to find him on the perimeter."
There were several times the Bulls found McDermott coming off screens. But he is often too fundamentally sound and with too much of a conscience because he gave up the ball without shooting several times because the shots weren’t perfect. Of course, often then someone takes a poorer shot. McDermott is too good a shooter to attempt so few shots, but he also has to be quicker to take them.
Because the Bulls are reaching a critical point in the season.
They’ve lost seven of the last 10 and 10 of 15. It’s unlikely the way the Eastern Conference is bunched up that they would fall out of contention. But there’s a tough February stretch of seven of 10 games on the road and then a five of seven on the road in early March. They say goodbye to 2016 in the United Center Saturday. They’re trying to find their way to a much happier new year.
“You take what you can out of a loss like this,” said Hoiberg. “I thought there were a lot of positives, good ball movement out there tonight. I thought we passed better out of the pick and roll, better than we have in a long time. We have to have that moving forward. I thought the way those guys competed for most of the second half was definitely a bright spot. We're just trying to find the right mix of guys that can go out and compete and put us in the best position to win. We'll go back and watch the film and see what direction we'll go in."