Ten was enough. The Bulls didn't exactly shake the basketball Richter scale Friday with a 10 in their 119-111 overtime victory over the Charlotte Hornets. But finally in the most crucial times of the game after 10 consecutive losses, the Bulls this time found the 10-foot height of the basket just right.
If you look at our last week we had three opportunities where we very easily could have won games. For our guys to be able to show the type of resolve to continue to fight through the adversity at the end when they tied up the game was very important.
Coach Fred Hoiberg
"The last couple of close games we thought we could have won them; it just happened down the stretch we didn't execute," said Kris Dunn, who had 20 points, a career high 12 assists, six rebounds and three steals with just one turnover. "We went out there and played the way we've played the last couple of games, hard, tough and gritty. The last couple of games we didn't get the stops we wanted down the stretch and this game we did. We finally got the monkey off our back."
It was more a relief achieved, a burden dissolved, the Bulls going to 4-20 in breaking their 10-game losing streak in which three of the last four losses were by two points or fewer. More significantly was the performances down the stretch and in overtime of core youngsters like Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, the latter with 24 points and 12 assists and crucial threes late in regulation and in the overtime. Both were on Dunn penetration and assists.
Robin Lopez had 19 points and Justin Holiday 17. David Nwaba added 11 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks. The Bulls shot 48.5 percent, finally not relying so much on three-point shooting, where they were six of 18. They shot 22 free throws, scored 56 points in the paint and had 14 fast break points and a more nuanced and balanced performance.
"The thing that I was most impressed with was how our guys just kept playing, how they showed the resolve," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "If you look at our last week we had three opportunities where we very easily could have won games. For our guys to be able to show the type of resolve to continue to fight through the adversity at the end when they tied up the game was very important."
"Kris Dunn continues to make huge strides," Hoiberg added. "Lauri was awesome down the stretch making big, clutch plays for us. Got himself to the free throw line, defended very well, really getting up on his rebounds. And hit shots in the clutch. Shows again he's going to be a heck of a player in this league, a guy we can go to down the stretch."
Markkanen this time was trustworthy, breaking out of a of a slump the past three weeks in which he'd shot about 31 percent and 27 percent on threes. With Nikola Mirotic back for his first game this season after a preseason fight, Markkanen was the one throwing the shots at the Hornets.
Markkanen made a crisp eight of 15 and three of five on threes with 10 points combined in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Markkanen made a three pointer with 1:12 left in regulation to give the Bulls a 104-100 lead. After the Hornets scored, Markkanen converted on a tough drive, momentarily losing the ball and then regaining it and scoring with 49.1 seconds left. A four-point lead. Could the Bulls hold it and break the streak and avoid another heartbreak?
The Hornets got four free throws around a Dunn drive that came up short and then a rushed Dunn jumper that sent the game into overtime. It looked like it would be yet another agonizing disappointment. Overtime on the road, giving up a four-point lead in the last 35 seconds. How do you hold your head up any longer? Must be fate. But they didn't give in or give up.
"After Kemba (Walker) tied it up with the two free throws to send it in to overtime after being up two possessions with under a minute to go, to be able to keep our composure and make winning plays was huge," Hoiberg exhaled.
It was tied at 108 with under three minutes left in overtime on one of two Dwight Howard free throws. The Hornets center had a retro game with 25 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks. Dunn has been coming fast in what was just his 10th straight start, controlling the game. The Bulls survived a Justin Holiday turnover before Howard's free throw as Dunn cut off a Nicolas Batum fast break with a non shooting foul. The Hornets missed. Dunn dribbled up, waited for a Markkanen screen, but then avoided it to fool the Hornets, drove and hung in the air and converted a layup for a 110-108 Bulls lead with 2:35 left.
Dunn mostly smothered Hornets star Walker, who had 47 points when the Hornets last to the Bulls in the United Center last month, the Bulls last win before Friday. Walker had 20 points Friday, but on five of 16 shooting. Dunn then picked off a poor Hornets pass and drove all the way. He missed, but Nwaba, becoming the Bulls opponent annoying version of Draymond Green and Dennis Rodman without the hysteria, was fouled flying in for the offensive rebound to enable the Bulls to retain possession.
It would be perhaps the most significant sequence of a game with 17 lead changes and 20 ties.
"David Nwaba off the bench, to have his toughness in the game at the end was a huge key for us," enthused Hoiberg.
Dunn then took a screen from Markkanen as the two were terrific in two-man play all game. Dunn got inside and Markkanen faded out beyond the three-point line. Dunn passed back and Markkanen dropped in the 26 footer for a 113-108 Bulls lead with 2:08 left. The usually impassive Markkanen posed with his arm outstretched as the ball settled through. He almost smiled.
Could they hold on one time?
Walker came right back with a driving score, Dunn missed a short runner. Nicolas Batum got a decent look at a three, though Dunn closed quickly and it missed. Markkanen was flying in on the defensive boards and grabbed yet another. With just over a minute left, the seven foot rookie went inside on the smaller Marvin Williams as he'd been doing several times and not just settling for all threes. Lopez threw over the top and Williams held for a foul. The Bulls inbounded and Markkanen took a handoff from Lopez and was fouled. He made both free throws for the 115-110 Bulls lead with 1:04 left in the overtime.
The Bulls haven't gotten lucky in any of these recent narrow losses, but finally they did. Leading 115-111 with 26 seconds left, Lopez fouled out grabbing Howard on a yet another wild Malik Monk miss. Howard missed both, but the second was tapped back to an open Walker at the three-point line. The shot hit the back rim and Nwaba was in the middle again to get the rebound. The Hornets collapsed after that and the Bulls finally had a final to make them smile.
"It was important for our young guys to go out there and get a win," agreed Hoiberg. "It's huge for our confidence."
Perhaps more so a respite from the grinding depression of the long losing streak.
It's easy for a team to lose hope with confidence. But this Bulls team, if not artistic, does continue to face each game without the memory of the last. Mirotic had six points and made one three pointer in his anticipated comeback from his preseason injuries. Zach LaVine is the beacon of hope who remains out, though the return of Nwaba from almost a month out with a sprained ankle has revitalized the team in many ways.
His relentless drive and hustle, push on the fast break and followup of missed shots seems contagious. He seems always in the middle of vital plays and roused the Bulls from a somnambulant start that got Mirotic a three-point play and then his own score on a full court drive after a rebound.
That pushed the Bulls to a 31-25 lead after one quarter and 16-2 close to the first. Lopez continues to probably be the team's most consistent player and team leader in season plus/minus after Nwaba, who hasn't played as much. The teams were tied at 52 at halftime and then Charlotte poked ahead 79-75 after three quarters. But the Bulls got a big bench boost to start the fourth quarter, Nwaba and Bobby Portis taking the Bulls on an 8-0 run that gave the Bulls the lead. They lost it briefly, 96-95, midway through the quarter. Dunn's 15 footer got the Bulls back ahead. They were threatened, tested and tied thereafter. But they never trailed again.
"It was time," said Holiday, "for us to get a win."
Call it their perfect 10 for one night.