The Bulls Wednesday in the end lost sight of one of the Nuggets, Paul Millsap scoring a putback with a tenth of a second left in overtime for a 108-107 victory. It ended a golden opportunity for redemption after the debilitating defeat against Golden State Monday. But perhaps more importantly, and certainly for the future, the Bulls discovered a nugget in their midst, the most precious of gems, a potential young star.
Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. holding off MVP candidate Nikola Jokic had 25 points, eight rebounds with six offensive, five assists and three blocks in not only one of the top rookie performances of the season, but one of the best big man rookie performances in franchise history.
Carter also made a pair of three pointers, hit two pressure free throws in overtime for a lead with 2:30 left and led the team in scoring in the fourth quarter of regulation. Carter was flying across the lane for blocks in one of the team's best defensive games and forcing the taller, broader and heavier Jokic into nine for 20 shooting and crucial misses at the end of regulation and overtime.
Carter chased Jokic into missing a short hook in the lane with 27.5 seconds left in regulation in a 98-98 game. It gave the Bulls a chance at what could have been a winning shot. Zach LaVine with a game high 28 points dribbled down the clock for the shot after making three remarkable shots minutes earlier to get the Bulls a 98-92 lead with 2:32 left. But LaVine going up for a shot was stripped of the ball by Millsap. Carter got to the loose ball in a game the Bulls were diving all over and tapped it to LaVine. Jokic then blocked LaVine's driving attempt out of bounds. But the Bulls after a referee review had just a second on the shot clock and a Justin Holiday jumper was blocked.
Denver got Malik Beasley open on a backdoor pass with 3.1 seconds left in regulation. But the ball went off Denver. The Bulls, however, had no timeout remaining and had to go full court. Jabari Parker's running 30 footer came up short.
Then in the overtime after a pair of Jokic threes got Denver going, a Holiday three gave the Bulls a 107-106 lead with 1:26 left. Then Carter was strong against Jokic again. Denver for the ball with 3.5 seconds in overtime trailing by one. Jokic's 15 footer from the left wing went long off the rim to the right side. Millsap bulldozed the thinner Holiday out of the way to put in the winner. With a tenth of a second a team can only score on a tapin and the Bulls had little chance.
"We had the win," lamented LaVine. "We just have to learn how to win. We brought it all the way down to the wire. It was a bounce back on how to fight. Still sucks because you play such a good game, you want that result. Wendell, he's going to be in the same position (as Jokic) one day. They are going to be battling each other as the top big dudes in the league one day. He's getting better and better. We're eight games in now. I want to see what he looks like at 80; it's going to be nice."
The final result, of course, was discouraging as the Bulls dropped to 2-6 and play Indiana in the United Center Friday. But it was encouraging the way the players responded from the historic beating against the Warriors Monday when they gave up 92 first half points. The Nuggets are the only team to beat the Warriors this season and came in averaging 114 per game. They were seven of 26 on threes and scored 98 points in regulation.
"I said we were going to learn a lot about ourselves with how we came out of the locker room," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "The guys were focused and responded and the effort, if we play like that we will be fine."
If Carter plays like that, and it was his third consecutive game scoring in double figures averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rounds in that stretch, the Bulls may well have some front line gold once Lauri Markkanen returns from injury.
"My teammates are having more faith in me, hitting me when I'm open so I can knock down shots, especially in the post," said Carter. "I feel I am a really good post player. My teammates are starting to trust me more and we're getting a feel for one another. I try to go out and play hard. That's the way I try to lead. As a rookie, I try to do all the little things, do whatever coach asks me to do.
"With players out, I feel I've had to come in and do a lot of things a lot of rookies don't have to do for their team right now," Carter acknowledged. "Not that I appreciate (the injuries), but I am blessed to be in that position where I can grow faster to help the team later when I am in the last few seconds on the clock (I will have) been in that position before."
Carter was unexpectedly moved into the starting lineup to open the season with Robin Lopez slow to start preseason and the team committing to young players. Carter's welcome to the NBA was games against All Stars Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Carter, not surprisingly, played cautiously without much offensive aggression the first week. But he seemed to find some assurance with a double/double in Saturday's win back in his native Atlanta. Carter stood out in the calamity that was Golden State Monday with 18 points, and sidled up next to LaVine Wednesday for scoring support that came about as close to a win as possible.
"Wendell was phenomenal," agreed Hoiberg. "You can see it. His confidence is growing every time he steps on the floor."
Heck, he may already be one of the top centers in franchise history and perhaps the most versatile. Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore generally is considered the best, but came to the Bulls later in his career and was a power player. Joakim Noah was a Defensive Player of the Year, but lacked offense. Bill Cartwright and Pau Gasol came late in their careers. Tom Boerwinkle was a facilitator. Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry? Oh, well. And imagine when Carter hits 20 next season.
Carter plays with an unusual mask of solemnity, mixed concentration and determination that rarely breaks character. Though he did exchange a playful glare with a heckler after making those late free throws.
I know; who comes to root for Denver?
Carter plays with a maturity and fundamental edge that belies his age. Though in post game interviews he is quick to smile and joke in a relaxed manner, a hard working competitor and team player who seems a locker room favorite. The way he and LaVine have been performing, you can begin to imagine the possibilities once the injured players return.
And not leaving Holiday trying to fend off a guy 75 pounds heavier.
Holiday took blame for the missed boxout at the end.
"I didn't make the play I was supposed to make," he said. "That's on me. I just didn't make the right decision at the right time. I should have been a little more into his body. Obviously, if I were a little closer it would have been tougher for him to get it. Didn't matter who. I've got to make the right play to win the game."
He didn't need to. It wasn't truly his fault. There really wasn't much the Bulls could do with their power forwards out. Hoiberg was playing offense/defense and took out Parker, who got his first start and had a tough three for 10 for six points. Parker is a weak defender and was constantly being targeted by the Nuggets. So Hoiberg inserted rookie Chandler Hutchison, who had been a defensive agitator in the game, to try to upset the inbounds pass. Ryan Arcidiacono was in for Cameron Payne, the latter who had several costly turnovers down the stretch. Arcidiacono despite just three points had seven assists and three steals and his frequently overplaying the ball in help situations was a catalyst for a third quarter surge that erased a six-point Denver lead.
"Arch is a winner," said Hoiberg. "That's who he is; he is going to go out there and do whatever it takes. We love what he's giving us."
So Holiday drew the tough assignment on Millsap with Carter occupied with Jokic. Perhaps Lopez could have come in. But he hadn't played the last four games and not Wednesday. That would be much to ask. Holiday is one of the team's better defenders, but Millsap proved both strong and savvy and had 19 points in the game. Jokic led Denver with 22. The Nuggets also dominated on the offensive boards with 17 and 23-8 in second chance points. If it were just 21-8, the Bulls would have had a victory.
"You can't blame anybody," said LaVine. "They made a good play and won the game; you've got to give them credit. Obviously, if we have all our guys back Justin wouldn't be guarding Paul Millsap. He'll be guarding a wing like Gary Harris or Beasley and Bobby (Portis) or Wendell would be guarding him and I don't think he gets that tip. But we have what we have right now and have to deal with that. I still think we should have gotten that win."
It seemed like the Bulls would the way the rookies were playing, especially Carter with Hutchison still hesitant offensively. Though Hutchison was especially active defensively. Antonio Blakeney has his three-point shooting eye. He had 15 points making all four of his threes and is 11 of 17 on threes the last four games.
The highly entertaining game had 16 lead changes and 11 ties with a whipsaw fourth quarter with five lead changes. The Bulls 9-0 run midway through the fourth quarter gave them a 94-88 lead with just over four minutes left on a pair of unlikely bail out scores by LaVine, teammates handing him the ball with five seconds or less on the shot clock and moving away. LaVine added another tough one with 2:32 left and it looked like the Bulls had come all the way back from that Monday defeat. But Zach didn't have enough magic this time, missing a 20 footer with 1:39 left and then that strip and block in the last seconds.
"Zach hit a couple of tough shots," noted Hoiberg. "We continued to put the ball in his hands and, unfortunately, those same shots didn't fall the last few minutes. But we have all the confidence in the world in Zach. He's done it in his career and earlier this year in a win. I thought that last one (with 13.6 seconds in overtime leading by one) was down. It was a great stroke, great shot, he created separation. Unfortunately, it didn't go."
And so went the Bulls with the loss, but perhaps finding much more along the way.