Late surge falls short to Wizards, 112-107

There are many times and places where a slide is a good thing. Like third base, with interest rates, at a playground and White Castle at 3 a.m. In the NBA in March, well, not so good. But that’s where the Bulls are, losers of seven of eight with Friday’s 112-107 loss to the Washington Wizards.

The defeat dropped the Bulls into 10th in the Eastern Conference at 32-37, two games behind streaking Miami for the final playoff spot. Washington is 42-26.

“Second half,” mused Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg of a 67-53 Bulls scoring margin. “We play like that, we’re going to be in it every night. If we go out with that type of mentality, that type of fight, we’ll stay in this thing. If we go out and play like we did the first half (trailing 59-40 at halftime), we have no chance. So it’s going to be, obviously, a full 48 minutes to give us a chance down the stretch.”

OK, that sounds easy.

Except it’s something the Bulls have heard, discussed and basically fumbled much of this disappointing season, and did once again in Washington, showing appealing resolve and purpose enough to get within a point with 39.7 seconds left on a Jimmy Butler three. The Bulls then got a bad break on what seemed like a questionable foul call when Bradley Beal missed a short jumper. Denzel Valentine, appearing to box out correctly, was called for a curious foul for allegedly undercutting Otto Porter.

He made two free throws for a 110-107 Washington lead with 18.4 seconds left, and then the Bulls botched the last play. Butler was isolated for what seemed to be a quick drive or three to tie. He seemed set on taking the three. Kelly Oubre, in for defense, did a good job beating a Robin Lopez screen to stay with Butler, who then got hung up, got a late screen from Lopez and then forced an off balance three with 3.9 seconds left. Washington rebounded.

“We executed the play pretty decently,” insisted Butler, who had his best game since All-Star break with 28 points on 10 of 17 shooting. “I shot it, I missed it. I thought it was going in. Another missed shot in my category. I think we got the one that we wanted.  I’ll take that shot. Maybe I should have sidestepped a little bit; we can say all that stuff now, but I had a great look at it.”

Butler finally had another big fourth quarter, and much needed with Dwyane Wade missing his first game since his season ending shoulder injury. Last shot is hit and miss. There’s little fault there. Perhaps it was a game with a lesson learned because it was a different Bulls team that played the second half, one that has the parts to make a case for the playoffs, as evidenced by that 107 points on 50 percent shooting and 28 assists despite the brutally poor and indifferent first half play.

It may have had something to do with that Bulls closing group that included Butler with Robin Lopez, who had a season high 25 points along with 12 rebounds, Rajon Rondo, Nikola Mirotic and Valentine.

The Bulls had yet another poor start with Paul Zipser this time starting for Wade. Though the lineups, rotations and starters have been on ongoing curiosity, it would seem the closing five with Mirotic and Valentine being the team’s best three-point shooters and Rondo being best in transition give the Bulls the best chance to win.

No, it’s not a great defensive lineup. But this Bulls roster, especially with all the switching on defense they do and with so many players in different roles, isn’t particularly set up for strong defense. Especially with Taj Gibson gone. But there’s enough scoring and pace potential to overcome the defenses lapses.

The Bulls got 15 points from Mirotic and 11 from Valentine. Neither was sharp from three as they combined for four of 15. Still, both made big fourth quarter threes down the stretch, showing a willingness to put themselves out for the final result. It’s the sort of aggression that can claim success.

“We have to keep it really simple,” said Butler. “You can’t put too many guys in too many different places and positions out there on the floor because they are not used to it; it’s not their fault. We just have to focus on the play we are going to be running with that group; whoever is taking his (Wade’s) position has to know where they have to be.”

It sounded like with 13 games left a plea for a shorter rotation, not as much switching defense, which is difficult to play when you haven’t worked together all season, and simple tenets: See ball, get ball, shoot ball.

“I really challenged them at halftime,” related Hoiberg of what he said was an angry reaction to what even Butler called a “soft” first half. “It was one of those situations where we weren’t getting back in transition, we were turning the ball over and we weren’t rebounding. The three things we talked about we had to do to stay in this game we were not doing; we went out there the second half and really turned things around, really battled, fought.”

It would have been an amazing and almost undeserved victory had the Bulls stolen it after the Wizards, with John Wall getting a career high 20 assists, carved up the Bulls and led by double digits or close virtually the entire first three quarters.

“We were just lazy--and I hate this word--and soft,” said Butler about that first half. “I hate it, but that is exactly what we were. They beat us to every 50-50 ball, whooped our tail in transition; we turned the ball over. What’s crazy is we’ve done that all year long. I figured we’d get tired of it. I guess we like playing that way. I don’t know the answer. Like a broken record, you keep asking me the same question, I’ll give you the same answer. Turn the ball over, not rebounding. Eventually, you would think it would change. But 69, 70 games in, it’s still there.”

I was mostly struck by Butler comparing the Bulls pattern to a broken record since given his age I doubt he’s ever seen what happens when a record is broken. Or maybe even seen a record. It’s “broken” when there’s a scratch on the vinyl and the needle stays in the same groove and that part repeats. OK, who has seen a record? Needle? I could start making references to the Bulls playing at 33 speed in the first quarter—that’s ball holding—and then 78 later on, which is Rondo speed. OK, Wall speed. If you are under 50, you can skip this paragraph and, I know, I may have missed my nap.

Anyway, back to this tale of two halves, which is the takeoff on the Dickens novel….I know, stop already.

“It started off a little shaky, but then we kind of fixed a lot of things in that second half,” said Butler. “I think that’s the way we are going to be moving forward.”

Though it’s a loss not to have Wade, the team’s second leading scorer, the elements are there to succeed without him because you can put better three-point shooting on the floor and run more.

Except, the Bulls came out with a miserably slow isolation, walk-it-up game with jump shots. Only some fancy Lopez play inside sprinkled in kept interest. Lopez had 13 first quarter points as he was dominating Marcin Gortat, one time even standing flat footed and sealing Gortat while grabbing a miss with one hand and putting it back in. With Butler adding eight first quarter points, he and Lopez accounted for 21 of the team’s 23 first quarter points as they trailed 29-23. Wall was simply a magician, finding the smallest places to often squeeze in underhand passes, though the Bulls defense on the pick and roll was awful. Lopez was terrific on offense, but teams do attack him in the pick and roll because he doesn’t stray from the inside too much. But even Butler repeatedly failed to get over screens to get to Beal, who led Washington with 24 points. And since the Bulls’ scheme is generally to switch instead of fight through screens, Washington repeatedly took advantage of the mismatches the screens would create. It’s one thing to switch when you have Gibson and Joakim Noah. Doing so with Zipser and Mirotic can produce some ugly confrontations.

“We didn’t play well the first half,” agreed Mirotic. “We didn’t play with energy and we needed to play urgent. We don’t have more time to play that way. Now is the time to win if we want to have that chance to be in the playoffs. We don’t have time to be like how we’ve been, first half that soft and being down 20. We need to start the games the right way, no easy baskets. We had a great second half, we played like a team, we played strong, we found each other, and that’s how we should play. But we need to work to be like that for 48 minutes.”

Apparently the word “soft” came up often at halftime after the Wizards closed the half on a 10-0 run and the Bulls had 12 first half turnovers for 19 Washington points and were outrebounded 27-23 in giving up 10 offensive rebounds. The Bulls doubled Washington in rebounding in the second half.

It was a bit of a carryover to start the third quarter as Zipser fired off six shots in three minutes. With Butler hanging onto the ball a lot in the first half, it seemed whenever anyone else got it they’d shoot it right away. Hey, might not get it back. But then, finally, the ball started making its way around and guys introduced themselves to one another. Lopez was wily on the offensive boards and Mirotic and Valentine were making plays.

The Bulls still trailed 84-72 to open the fourth quarter, but started with a 15-7 run as Michael Carter-Williams had a couple of nice drives and suddenly it was a game. The Bulls were within 91-87 with 6:15 left on a Joffrey Lauvergne follow (no, you never know who you’ll see out there). Lauvergne actually was good, and then Butler made those tough plays and drives he hadn’t been making lately, was involving others, and Mirotic and Valentine stepped into threes.

But the Bulls just couldn’t stop the Wizards, Beal and Wall shaking off defenders on screens. Still, the Bulls looked like they had that rebound when there was that curious call against Valentine. And what would have been with a chance to take the lead with 18.4 seconds left. It was that close; they are not that far away.

“You can say we fought back, that we played well in the second half, but we didn’t play well enough to win,” noted Butler. “So I think that’s a negative.”

Which can mean a landslide and plenty of debris.