Ten minutes to go in the Friday night game and anything could happen. The Miami Heat was desperately hanging onto a one-point lead over the Bulls. The United Center was throbbing with enthusiasm and the Bulls were coming. First, Nikola Mirotic defected a Dwayne Wade pass inside and the Bulls were out running. Justin Holiday missed a runner, but the young journeyman picked off a Luol Deng pass and was on the run….
….and six minutes later the Bulls were trailing by 23 points.
Hey, no one said the Union Pacific came through here!
“We just started turning the ball over, five straight possessions which led to them getting run out plays at the rim or wide open threes,” lamented Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “The dominoes started falling and it was one of those things where we could not stop their momentum. It started with turnovers and it’s been the theme the last few games. The fourth quarter we just lost our mind out there.”
And yet another game as they are suddenly coming down to a precious few.
The Bulls with the 118-96 collapse fell to 32-32 with their sixth loss in the last eight. Miami is 39-27 and disappearing in the distance toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Bulls remain in ninth, a half game behind the Detroit Pistons, who lost in Charlotte. But it’s starting to become a two or three-team race for that last spot with Atlanta now 3.5 games ahead of the Bulls in sixth and Indiana two games ahead in seventh.
“It’s hard right now because the season is winding down,” noted Pau Gasol, who led the Bulls with 17 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and six turnovers. “Every game that goes by is less and less games to play; the margin of error is gone. So every game is extremely meaningful and we try hard and things don’t work out; it’s frustrating and disappointing.
“Just got to forget about the record and play the game,” said Gasol. “We are .500 now, so we have proven to be a .500 team. Let’s see if we can play two good games on the road in Toronto and Washington, which is not going to be easy. And do something positive.”
It probably will take much better health, especially in the backcourt.
It’s easy enough to point to another game with lost opportunities, this time 18 turnovers in a relatively good effort otherwise.
“We were in it,” said Taj Gibson, who added 13 points. “We played hard, but we turned the ball over; we didn’t take care of the ball. They out rebounded us (43-39). It was the small things, especially undermanned the way we are. We came out on the floor hard the first couple of quarters, but it kind of got away from us in the late third, early fourth. We were a couple of plays away from making big things happen. I still feel like we have more than enough to win, I still feel we have a good team. We have a lot of talent. We just have to get the mindset right; 18 more games left. It was a tough one. We came out with the right mindset. We just have to keep playing. It’s do or die.
“I just hope one day,” sighed Gibson, “we can have a full team and play together.”
Oh, where have we heard that before?
But even if it sounds too much like an excuse, it remains a reality.
As much as everyone is trying—and they are with no signs or indications of giving in or giving up, no satisfaction in the locker room afterward—there’s a reason why some guys sign autographs and others fly coach.
The Bulls starting backcourt Friday was making a combined $2 million; the backcourt watching is being paid about $37 million. The Bulls had $50 million of their payroll among three players in street clothes and about $22 million starting. The starting point guard, E’Twaun Moore, for one isn’t really a point guard and wasn’t in the rotation to start the season. The starting shooting guard, Holiday, was getting his sixth career start and first as a Bull, averaging 2.8 this season. This against Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade.
That’s because Derrick Rose suffered a groin strain late in Thursday’s loss at San Antonio and joined absent Jimmy Butler, missing his 13th game in the last 14 with a knee strain. So not only was that 39 points missing replaced by two players averaging a combined 10, but the Bulls’ two leaders in assists per game. And Noah fourth in assists out for the season, though back with the team.
The Bulls remarkably, had 27 assists on 38 baskets thanks to Gasol with nine. But Miami isn’t a stupid team. With hardly anyone else able to make plays, the Heat players began swiping at Gasol with the ball, crowding the passing lanes.
“We tried behind the back passes; you have to value the possession,” warned Hoiberg. “We did not especially (value that ball) in the fourth quarter when they went on a (22-3) run; it snowballed, went the wrong direction.”
OK, Gasol had some odd ones, one time trying a no look, over the shoulder pass that looked like he was picking bird droppings off his shirt collar. But for the most part, Gasol was the most imaginative, effective and capable playmaker the Bulls had. Gasol had eight points, five rebounds and four assists in carrying the Bulls to a 31-23 first quarter lead and 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists with two blocks as the Bulls led 58-54 at halftime. Gasol missed a triple double by one assist despite playing 29 minutes as the game got away late.
“When we made mistakes, they capitalized,” Gasol said. “They busted the game open and kept going and started making all kinds of shots. The guys that are available to play are trying hard to do the right thing and play hard. But at this point nothing is going to come easy. So we need as many healthy bodies as possible and hopefully some of our main guys will be able to play soon to make a push and have a chance.
“I think we are competing for the most part,” Gasol added. “We are trying hard, guys are doing their best. But at the end of the day we are playing against some good teams in good rhythm, healthier than us. And especially in the fourth quarters we can’t keep up. See if we can do it better.”
Nobody likes to admit they don’t have enough, as often has been heard around the Bulls. And all teams have some injuries. But there’s no replacing not only your best scorers with Rose averaging 21.4 points since the All-Star break, but your two principal playmakers who basically have the ball in their hands most of the time.
Around them the Bulls have stationed spot up shooters like Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy, the appropriate theory to spread the court. But there’s no open shots with no one being able to drive the lane and make plays. So Gasol goes to the high post, like Noah did, and tries. But Miami challenged Gasol to beat them. They mostly defended him with former Bull Deng, just trying to push him around. Gasol responded with seven of 12 from the field. But defenders were able to stick with Dunleavy, McDermott and Mirotic, who combined for 17 field goal attempts, two more than Holiday.
Holiday with 14 points and six of 15 shooting, played well. He was active on defense against Wade and taking his shot aggressively as he’s surpassed Tony Snell in the rotation. But he’s no playmaker. Moore tries, but he is best going at the basket.
Still, the Bulls even with a dozen turnovers through three quarters to four for Miami were in position, trailing just 84-81 to start the fourth quarter.
But after that Holiday steal, it perhaps was a harbinger of events to come as he and Bobby Portis blew a two-on-one break after Holiday lost a nifty return touch pass from Portis.
The Heat pushed up court for a jumper from reserve Josh Richardson, who scored 16 fourth quarter points with four threes. Hassan Whiteside blocked an Aaron Brooks drive—yes, it’s Holiday, Brooks, Portis, McDermott and Mirotic on the floor against the likes of Whiteside, Wade and Deng—and Richardson drove for a score. The Bulls called timeout trailing 88-83.
Mirotic missed a three on a pass from Portis; Holiday was hustling and made another steal, pursuing loose balls with vigor.
“The same thing I try to do every game, be aggressive at both ends of the floor, do what I can to help the team the best way possible,” said Holiday, who is proving to be a worthy addition. “Obviously, defensively trying to get stops and offensively trying to make sure to be aggressive and open up things for other people.”
Moore scored on a runner as the ball went around five times with no one able to get a shot to get back within 88-85 with just over eight minutes left. Yes, still very much a game.
Deng, who had 19 points, made a corner three. Mirotic threw away a pass on a drive. Deng took Mirotic inside and scored. McDermott forced up a runner that missed. Trailing 93-85, the Bulls brought back most of their starters. Richardson made a long three, which was somewhat unexpected. Deng stole an inside pass from Dunleavy, took it all the way and lobbed to Whiteside for a dunk. The rout was on.
Gibson tried to drive and lost his dribble; again, a lot of guys who normally don’t have to make plays were trying.
“That’s the give and take with what we are trying to do offensively, sharing the ball, making cuts, playing off the big guys,” said Dunleavy. “You have guys who are not normally used to handling the ball handling the ball. That’s going to create more turnovers; that’s just the way it works. It can be beautiful and then you can have nights where you turn it over left and right. That’s what happened tonight.”
The Heat ran out again (22-10 fast break points) and found Richardson open again for a three.
Anyone got him? Anyone know who he is?
Moore dribbled into a short jumper to stop a 17-2 spurt. No assist there.
Dragic shot an air ball, but Whiteside saved it and Deng scored on a spin move in the lane. No Heat check quite yet.
Whiteside had 13 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks off the bench.
Justise Winslow picked off a McDermott pass back to Gasol on a lot of side to side stuff and ran uncontested for a dunk: 105-87, by the way.
Gasol drove and tried to bounce a pass to Gibson. Winslow got it. Whiteside missed, then McDermott did and Richardson made another three. Gasol missed and Dragic dribbled around some and made a short jumper in the lane for a 110-87 lead with 3:52 left. Yes, it was Cristiano Felicio time. Snell came in and threw a pass right to…Dragic. It was an equal opportunity meltdown.
In some respects, it was impressive it didn’t occur until 40 minutes into the game.
You just can’t lose your two primary ball handlers, playmakers and scorers and survive for very long. Forty minutes, as it turned out this time. Again, it’s one thing to say to be careful with the ball, make the right plays. But with so many new faces even in the starting lineup and then deep into the bench like that against a veteran team, the margin for error, as Gasol likes to note, is skeletal.
“You’ve got guys in positions they are not normally accustomed to,” agreed Gibson. “You have so many guys injured, guys coming in different rotations. You are trying to balance the rotations and guys are feeling each other out about moving the ball, but we made a lot of mistakes we didn’t want to. It’s tough. Every time you turn around you have somebody injured. You really can’t get a rhythm, can’t get a feel for knowing what player likes to do when and where and why. It’s frustrating, but have to keep playing hard. I felt we played hard tonight, but we came out on the short end of the stick.”
The Bulls are in Toronto Monday and the games become even more vital. They are in Washington Wednesday playing for a tiebreaker with a team trying to move up from 10th. Then comes a stretch against six teams with losing records that may decide the season. The Bulls will need to create some space in that span to have a chance at the playoffs. It’s certainly possible and doable, and if they can get healthy…
Butler is said to be close and could return Monday if the weekend of workouts go well; similarly with Rose, who is listed day to day and worked out lightly before Friday’s game.
“It started with not taking care of the basketball,” noted Hoiberg. “It’s got to stop if we want to have any chance of going on a run here this last part of the season.”