The Bulls Monday played their last game in the Palace of Auburn Hills, their once house of pain outside Detroit where the Pistons for years delivered brutal beatings until the Bulls finally broke through on the way to their run of championships. Though the way the Bulls played, losing an early 14-point lead and being run over and left flat by the Pistons in a 109-95 defeat, there may not be all that many games left in their season.
“We have to figure it out now,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 27 points and nine rebounds, making 12 of 13 free throws. “We can’t be looking further and further down the road. We’ll be all right; just win some games. Wish I could say we can win the rest we have. All we can focus on now is the practice we have tomorrow.”
The Bulls hope it’s one in which they get back Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, both of whom missed Monday’s game with injuries, Wade’s 10th with a variety of physical and rest issues. That’s because the Bulls fell into a tie at 31-32 with the Pistons for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. And right behind the Bulls is the streaking Miami Heat coming off a sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers and having won 19 of 23. They are tied with the Milwaukee Bucks, who have won seven of 10. Both are just a game and a half behind the Bulls and Pistons with the Bulls facing five of the next eight on the road.
And so it was Monday as the Bulls gave up the game with a poor defensive second half, the Pistons, who were sleepwalking early in the game, scoring 58 second half points on 54 percent shooting, blowing by the Bulls on the perimeter for straight line drives for layups. And then the Bulls’ offense becoming almost paralyzed with isolation, walk-the-ball up possessions that got Bulls players standing around so much ushers asked them to return to their seats.
Robin Lopez had 18 points and Cameron Payne off the bench had 14 points with four of nine on three pointers. The Pistons had a whopping 58-32 scoring margin inside, beating the Bulls in rebounding and second chance points and to the basket so often it seemed like the Bulls often were spectators. The Pistons repeatedly outhustled Bulls to the ball, several times Bulls players standing around and watching for a ball to bounce out of bounds while a Pistons player deflected it to a teammate.
“We did get stagnant; missed a couple of good looks early in the (third) quarter that I thought affected us. But you have to continue to play through it and get it off the board and push it down at the same pace that helped us play pretty good offense through most of the first three quarters,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Second and fourth quarters hurt us. They scored 37 on us in the second. We had pretty good control of the game after a great first quarter. We were really locked in, guarding and when we get the ball off the rim we’re pretty darn effective coming down in transition. They came out and punched us in the mouth right away in that second quarter against our second unit. You’ve got to make it more difficult for them.”
It was perhaps as indifferent an effort as the Bulls got from the reserve unit all season.
Paul Zipser started for Wade and had four points in almost 32 minutes. Aron Baynes repeatedly jumped over Cristiano Felicio for rebounds and putbacks and had 12 points in 18 minutes. Michael Carter-Williams, returning after missing five games, combined with Denzel Valentine to play 26 minutes with three shots and two points. The Bulls intentionally fouled Detroit’s Andre Drummond and he had as many points or more just on free throws as six Bulls.
“I think everybody knows who’s going to get the ball in the fourth quarter give or take that D-Wade’s out and Rondo’s out,” said Butler. “They did a good job of making me give the ball up, double teaming. I could hear them yelling it from all the way on the other end of the floor. Obviously, that was their scouting report. But I’ll take the shots we got. I want the young guys to be aggressive, shoot the ball when you’re open, and attack the rim when you can. It’s only going to make us better in this long run that’s so short with the 19 or so games that we have left. We’ll be okay.”
You have to look up because it’s a long way down.
It looked encouraging to start with the Bulls taking slumping guard Reggie Jackson out of the game, racing to 13-4 and 19-9 leads before finishing the first quarter leading 26-14. It wasn’t just poor Detroit shooting. The Bulls’ help defense was suffocating and active, the Pistons forced into awkward off balance shots and looking disinterested. It was 12-4 Bulls inside with seven assists on 10 baskets and zero turnovers in the first quarter.
But in moving to five reserves without Wade and Rondo, the defense especially suffered and those difficult shots became easier as Bulls guards routinely went under screens and rotations were late, if they came at all. The ball stopped moving as the Bulls fired off nine three pointers in the second quarter, Payne making two. Bobby Portis was active and energetic running the floor, though that would stop with the ball holding after halftime. He had eight of his 10 points in the first half.
The Bulls still led 55-51 at halftime as Butler, being more aggressive as he promised after just seven shots in the Saturday loss to the Clippers, had 15 points at the half. But the Pistons had hope, and Jackson with just two first half points quadrupled that two minutes into the second half. He burned Jerian Grant and later Payne off the dribble, though the Bulls hung in leading 71-70 when they began fouling Drummond. He made four of eight, but that also seemed to slow the Bulls, who had three field goals the last six minutes of the third quarter. It still was 79-79 after three.
The Pistons took control to start the fourth quarter with a 12-3 run that left the Bulls’ offensively challenged lineup with too much to overcome.
The Pistons took advantage of matchups against the Bulls reserves, ran ahead for scores, exploited confusion on coverages and got a hot Jackson, who was 10 of 10 shooting in the second half and finished with 26 points. The Bulls started the fourth quarter missing nine of their first 10 shots, mostly in isolation jump shots, with a pair of turnovers. The Pistons led 91-82 with six minutes left and then just pulled away.
It also gave the Pistons the 2-1 season series lead tiebreaker over the Bulls. The Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Miami, but trail in the tiebreakers with the Knicks, Hawks, Wizards, Bucks and Pacers. No tiebreakers matter with the Cavs, Raptors and Celtics teams the Bulls have excelled against. So there’ll be no sneaking into the playoffs. The Bulls will have to play their way in with 15 games remaining against East teams, including the Wizards, Hornets, Pistons, Raptors, Cavaliers, Hawks and Knicks.