It was just one play among a few hundred in Monday’s Bulls’ resolute 100-90 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. But as much as any lately, it may have symbolized who the Bulls are and have to be in this extended playoff race against heightening odds.
“Nobody wants to be in this position knowing you are right at the end of the cliff,” said Taj Gibson. “But like coach said, have to take a couple of punches to the face, get up and keep swinging until somebody falls; tonight we just kept swinging and it was one round. But we have a lot more rounds; guys are going to keep coming at us the next couple of days, next couple of weeks. We have to keep fighting. That dog fighting mentality, and tonight was one of those games for us.”
Jerryd Bayless, who already had made five three pointers to rally the Bucks from 13 behind to within two with under five minutes left, shot another that missed. It got tipped by Pau Gasol and was heading out of bounds. Gibson, with his back to the court and falling, got a hand on the ball and directed it over his shoulder to Mike Dunleavy, who threw ahead to Gasol beating Bucks down court. He was fouled. Gasol’s free throws edged the Bulls ahead by nine points as the Bulls pulled away in the last two minutes for the vital victory.
It moved the Bulls to 32-30, though still just eighth in the Eastern Conference, a half game ahead of ninth place Detroit. It came amidst the gloom of Jimmy Butler sitting out with knee swelling following just one game back after missing 11 with that strained knee. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said there was no structural damage for Butler, who will get treatment Tuesday and depending on how that progresses perhaps more tests Wednesday. The Bulls play Thursday in San Antonio.
Plus, both Bobby Portis with an eye injury and Aaron Brooks with patellar tendinitis went out during the game.
“At this point it’s borderline comical,” said Dunleavy. “We just can’t stay healthy. Just the wrong side of the luck.”
Plus, Derrick Rose was smashed in the eye early in the fourth quarter, though he stayed in the game as he did after being bounced hard on his tail bone during Saturday’s win over Houston.
“He had the fall on his tail bone the last game and gutted through that one,” noted Hoiberg. “Played almost 39 minutes for us today and wanted to be out on the floor and he made a lot of key plays down the stretch.”
Rose led the Bulls with 22 points and seven assists and is averaging 21.3 points and 5.3 assists and 55 percent on three pointers since the All-Star break. Rose has shot at least 50 percent in every game since the break. Gasol Monday had his second triple double in the last five games with an historic 12 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists and five blocks. According to Bulls statistics from the NBA, Gasol was just the third player in the last 30 years along with Hakeem Olajuwon and DeMarcus Cousins with a game of at least 10 point, 10 assists, 15 rebounds and five blocks.
Gasol became the fourth player older than 35 to have multiple triple doubles in one season and the only center, and his seven first quarter assists when the Bulls took a 25-16 lead was the most by a center in a quarter in more than a decade.
“I guess I am happy I am able to play at this level at this stage of my career,” said Gasol. “Without question, I cannot do it without my teammates, who do the right thing out there and play the right way. I guess when you are able to do exceptional things you feel proud of what you do and it’s encouraging to continue to work hard to have a chance to do it again.”
And what the Bulls did down the stretch was doing it with defense. Not only Gibson’s save, but Gibson with a block on a driving Khris Middleton with 3:59 left and the Bulls hanging onto an 85-83 lead. That led to Jabari Parker fouling an aggressive Gibson on an offensive rebound attempt and then Gasol finding E’Twaun Moore in the left corner for a three pointer and 88-83 Bulls lead with 3:34 left.
Then in this crucial sequence, Greg Monroe rebounded a Middleton miss and when Monroe went back up with the ball, Gasol delivered the block.
“When the game is on the line and the score is close and you are going down the stretch you need big plays, especially on the defensive end to stop momentum and build for yourself,” noted Gasol. “Important we were able to stop them and stretch out the lead. It’s hard enough to get a triple double. I’m glad my blocks also are up there. I’ve been the last two seasons at the top of the league (in blocks); for a poor defender, it is not bad.”
Yes, Pau hears what they say. And so does Rose, though they don’t say much.
But they have been doing it with their play and their grit, Rose and Gasol carrying the Bulls in this vital stretch of the season with the injury epidemic spreading once again. But the pair dominated their matchups and were the prime forces in a game in which the Bulls set a season high with a masterful 35 assists on 39 baskets.
Dunleavy added four of six threes for a season high 18 points with six Bulls in double figures. Nikola Mirotic had 14 off the bench in just under 20 minutes. Hoiberg had barely eight players to finish with given all the injuries and late word before the game Butler was out again.
But it was the kind of rugged effort the Bulls will need in these last 20 games to continue playing into late April and perhaps beyond.
“I thought we came out of the gate with the right mentality, especially defensively,” said Hoiberg. “That’s two games now where we have jumped out to at least a nine point lead. A lot was because we were sharing the ball, playing unselfishly, getting stops on the other end. Mike hit a huge three on a great pass from Derrick and a great screen from Taj in the corner (to make it 91-84 before the Gibson save), and we made enough stops to pull away at the end. Guys were gritty. We were pretty thin and guys had to play extra minutes.”
And so it may continue to be with uncertainty again surrounding Butler, Portis leaving the locker room unable to open his eye and Brooks limping out as well. Hoiberg went back to Justin Holiday for 17 minutes, though he stumbled with four turnovers replacing Tony Snell in the rotation while Brooks and Portis were scoreless in limited time.
So it was the fierce determination of the starting five that succeeded as Moore back starting had 16 points and shot six of 11 with seven assists. Jabari Parker had 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“Just being tough,” said Gibson, who exemplified the ethic with his play. “Having the will to win. Guys have been battle tested. Even though those games we got beat a lot and took a lot of tough Ls, those games are a testament to guys like E’Twaun and Mike stepping in and hitting big shots. We hit big shots when we needed them, but everybody has to do whatever it takes to get the win, get loose balls, be scrappy. Any small little play can help you win games.
“That was a crazy play,” Gibson added about his save and fling. “I was happy I was able to throw it to somebody in red. It was one of those plays you had to lay your body on the line and go after it; those are the kinds of plays we are going to need.
“Playing with a lot of will to win, understanding we can’t lose tough games like this, have to push through,” said Gibson. “Understand we have guys down, but these are the kinds of games to build your confidence. Got to keep playing hard for the man next to you.
“It’s been like this (with the injuries) for years,” noted Gibson. “Nothing new, makes you mentally strong. I’ve been through this a lot. I think somebody put a spell on us. Just got to keep digging, keep encouraging the young guys, keep pushing and believing. When you keep getting punched in the face you don’t run. You keep going toward it, keep fighting your way back. This city is one of those cities that has an underdog mentality. So we have to keep fighting and believing in ourselves and having that underdog mentality and keep fighting.”
That’s what can sustain the Bulls in what is looking perhaps like a long shot run to the playoffs with the epidemic of bad luck and ill health.
But the Bulls came out with a defensive determination which would at least end their streak of giving up at least 100 points in 16 straight games with that 25-16 first quarter as the Bucks shot 32 percent. Rose was again firing on after burners while Gasol was picking apart the defense from the high post.
“I love moving the ball,” said Gasol. “I love finding my open teammates. I love making the right play and lately I’ve been more on the top of the floor being able to make those plays and passes. With my ability to shoot, guys come at me and decide to leave other guys open. My teammates know if they are open they are going to get the ball and get a great rhythm shot.”
Gasol had beautiful connections with Mirotic and Gibson in high/low actions, though when he and Rose departed the team stumbled. The Bucks came back within 37-36 in the second quarter against the reserves before a Mirotic pullup three, Rose 20 footer and Gasol driving left handed hook shot gave the Bulls a 47-40 halftime lead.
The Bulls pushed the ball to start the second half, Rose finding Dunleavy ahead for a pullup three, Gibson getting his own miss and passing back to Dunleavy for another three and Rose with a pullup bank shot for a 59-51 lead. The Bulls extended it to 69-57 with Gasol’s spinning left hander for a three-point play. Though Milwaukee closed within 73-69 going into the fourth quarter following substitutions.
Rose hit a 15 footer and a three early in the fourth quarter to give the Bulls some space before the pivotal defensive plays late from Gasol and Gibson held off any collapse.
The Bulls did give up 18 offensive rebounds and committed 18 turnovers, six by Rose. Gasol shot just four of 14, but with that unselfish play and veteran leadership they aren’t giving up.
“We have to come together and play together,” said Gibson. “Pau has been leading by example, getting assists, rebounding, scoring. People are saying he is 35 years old; he has a lot in the tank. He takes really good care of his body, he’s a strong leader and I’m happy to be battling with him on a daily basis. People don’t understand, he’s one of the greats. He’s going to bring it every night and he is leading us. Even when guys are down, he’s playing through injuries, playing through sickness, and that’s the kind of guy we need.”
They seem to have a bunch of them lately.