Bulls set the pace with 96-95 win over Indiana

Jimmy’s under the boards, Jimmy’s in the open, Jimmy makes the shot.

And then Jimmy made the block. And the Bulls won!

Jimmy likes it when the Bulls win.

“We’ve got to learn to build on our leads,” said Bulls guard Jimmy Butler Monday after the Bulls 96-95 victory over the Indiana Pacers. “But a win’s a win,”

Butler had a spectacular finish that emphasized his unique status as a rare two-way star in the NBA with first a tough pull up 15 footer with 1:24 remaining after the Bulls had lost all but one point of a 15-point third quarter lead. Then after the Pacers got within a point on an unlikely Monta Ellis hanging floater, Butler missed on a drive. But with the Pacers setting up for what would be their first lead of the game and the victory, Butler stretched out against the 6-8 Paul George to block George’s driving, fading 10 footer with a second left to save the victory for the Bulls.

“Jimmy made some huge plays for us down the stretch,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Not only the last play. We just put the ball in his hands and he went out and made big plays. You feel good with Jimmy guarding Paul George. With his confidence he is just making the game so easy. Jimmy made them work, and especially on that last shot.”

Sadly, Pacers coach Frank Vogel had to agree.

“We got the play we were looking for,” said Vogel. “Paul made a strong move into the lane and made a great move to get open. Butler made a great play defensively. I don’t think there was a foul. He just made a good defensive play.”

And so the Bulls leave home for two weeks at 7-3 and starting their Western Conference trip Wednesday in Phoenix.

It was with some disappointment, though mostly overstated alarm in the wider basketball community after Derrick Rose left the game with a sprained ankle with 5:53 left and the Bulls ahead 91-84. Rose rolled his left ankle driving baseline and being fouled with 7:02 left. It was unfortunate as Rose was having one of his best games of the season with 23 points in 33 minutes with six assists, two of two on three pointers, two steals, a block and zero turnovers. Rose looked sharp with nice lift in his shot and working the ball around as the Bulls built up double digit leads in each of the first three quarters.

You could see Rose wince seemingly more in annoyance and disappointment than pain. He spoke with reporters after the game. If it were serious, he obviously would not have. But anytime anything happens to Rose, including mosquito bites and bloody noses, he is pummeled with the here-we-go-again refrain. It apparently was a simple sprain that happens in just about every NBA game. But Rose has acknowledged given his injury history he knows everyone will react to any setback.

“Just a normal ankle injury; should be all right,” Rose said. “I’m just happy nothing’s torn or broken. I don’t think I’m going to need a walking boot. I’m used to twisting my ankles. When I was younger, that’s the injury I always had. I trust and believe in my teammates. I knew they could finish the game. I felt like if I (stayed) out there I could be hurting the team. Right now I’m able to walk on it. That’s a good thing. It’s just an ankle injury, nothing big and I should be back out there.”

That would be a good thing, especially the way Rose and Butler played with Butler adding 17 points while playing through second half foul trouble. At times, Hoiberg had to take Butler off George because of the fouls and went with Tony Snell, who had a tough game. But Butler asked back on George late and the result, if not obvious and expected with George scoring 26 points and making four of five threes, was welcomed by the Bulls.

“I told coach I wanted to stay in,” said Butler. “I didn’t want to come out in crunch time. When you have five (fouls) you can’t be as aggressive. But it worked out for us. I didn’t foul out and we got the win.”

It was a good one for the Bulls as teams generally look at the season in segments. For the Bulls the first one was these 10 games before the road trip and the Bulls came through it well. They had one poor game, the 25-point loss in Charlotte. But otherwise the other two losses were both in overtime. And while they have not necessarily won impressively all the time, they did get wins over their top opponents, the Cavaliers and Thunder, and generally have won the games down the stretch with strong defensive efforts like against the Pacers.

The Bulls Friday shut out the Hornets in seven of their last 10 possessions and on Monday forced misses on four of the Pacers last six shots after Indiana had tied the game at 93 with 2:33 remaining.

But then it was Jimmy.

Jimmy’s got some new moves.

Well, not so much although it has been an uneven start for Butler. He’s still leading the team in scoring at 19.2 per game. But he’s seemed detached at times, his field goal, three-point and free throw shooting, assists and rebounds all down from last season. Some around the team felt he was pressing to show he deserved the maximum contract he signed and the faith the team showed.

But nothing could demonstrate that more than the kind of finish Butler provided, first by creating his own shot and then face up and denying one of the game’s best scorers. This all while he’d earlier finished a highlight lob dunk on a sweet back door move and pass from Pau Gasol and continued to draw the opponent’s toughest offensive player no matter the position. And then make the play.

“He’s a hell of a player, a tough guard for anybody in the league,” Butler said about George. “He went right, pulled up and I was there to contest.”

And what a contest it became in a game that the Bulls seemed to be dominating. Until they almost lost.

The Bulls behind Rose’s lively scoring and mid range bank shots, ricocheted off to a 15-2 start in the first four minutes. Rose was also working hard defensively as Monta Ellis had most of his 20 points late when Rose was out.

“He was great,” Hoiberg said of Rose. “His tempo and his shot were really good. He has been putting his work in. Not only in practice, but coming in late to work on his shot. You could tell that first three was going in as soon as it left his hands. He will keep getting in better shape. I thought he played terrific.”

Rose and the Bulls obviously hope this is just a tweak in time rather than a setback. The Bulls said they’ll have to see whether the ankle swells up overnight before determining whether Rose can play Wednesday. The Bulls obviously—and appropriately given its November—were being cautious by not retaping Rose’s ankle and sending him back out. After all, he stayed in the game for about two minutes after hurting the ankle.

The Bulls led 31-21 after the first quarter. Indiana made a bit of a run, but Doug McDermott with 11 points, the only Bull other than Rose and Butler scoring in double figures, got his shot going and kept the Pacers from closing further.

Hoiberg has continued his mad scientist approach to the lineup and rotations, and Monday started Snell for McDermott. The pattern with McDermott, who continues to show he’s by far the team’s best shooter, has been regular play in the first half and rare play after halftime. Hoiberg has tended without saying specifically—just calling it matchups—to lean toward defensive setups later in the game. Though he closed mostly with Gasol over Noah Monday. McDermott has played fewer than 20 minutes in the last two games and five of the 10.

Hoiberg has opted for Snell for defense, as he did Monday against the Pacers. But Snell continues to make some of the most head scratching offensive plays with an odd shot to end the third quarter and then running into George for an offensive foul with about 20 seconds on the shot clock and a minute left with the Bulls hanging onto a three-point lead. Though it’s been starting power forward Nikola Mirotic who has struggled the most lately. Hoiberg played him just six minutes in the second half Monday, the third game in the last six he played less after halftime. Mirotic has scored six points or fewer in five of the last six games and is five for 25 on threes in that time.

But the Bulls Monday got another impressive game from Taj Gibson, who had nine points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocks. Gibson also finished an impressive lob dunk on a pass from Noah, who had eight points and six rebounds in 21 minutes. Kirk Hinrich added nine points as the Bulls bench outscored the Pacers’ 39-26.

Hoiberg said he made the starting lineup switch as he continues to tinker with ways to get off to better starts. And the Bulls did Monday, though mostly because of Rose’s shooting. Rose must now be working with Bulls sponsor BMO Harris as Rose continues to artfully deposit a lovely bank shot.

But the Pacers after the Bulls led 48-35 late in the second quarter got within five as Mirotic kept losing C.J. Miles, who would make five of eight threes for 19 points. Mirotic tends to over help as the Bulls are constantly leaving open three-point shooters. You wonder if Hoiberg might go to Gibson in the starting lineup for his tougher defensive play, especially with Mirotic’s shot gone awry.

“I wasn’t aware of my stats,” said Gibson. “I’m just happy we got a win. We are still trying to figure out the offense. I’m just being patient; whatever the coach needs me to do I will go in and do my job. It was a dog fight. We had a lot of plays on offense that we usually make, a couple of ins and outs. We got some tough stops late and that was the ball game. It feels good to be healthy, finally. I am enjoying how the coach can switch out multiple positions and just doing what the coach needs me to do.”

The Bulls led 53-45 at halftime as Rose found Butler on an inbounds pass. Butler and Rose scoring gave the Bulls a 67-52 lead midway through the third quarter and Rose found Noah on nice rolls for a score twice with Noah finally looking for more offense. But again, as happens regularly at some point, the offense slowed to individual play and the Pacers pulled within 79-75 after three quarters.

“We got stagnant,” noted Hoiberg. “We missed some free throws (20 for 32), and we had some time of possession errors. I thought our flow was pretty good all night. We had good pace. Just those last eight minutes we shut it down from the paint. We have to push out the lead and continue to do that. We will learn from it.”

The Bulls got 13 rebounds from Gasol, though two of 11 shooting as they couldn’t take advantage of a much smaller Pacers’ interior. Then it was just after Rose hit a three for an 88-82 lead with nine minutes remaining that Rose suffered the sprain and had to leave. He sat on the bench for a few minutes and then was taken to the locker room, and Butler drew his fifth foul with more than four minutes left. George immediately went at Snell for a pair of baskets. And when Ellis scored on a drive out of a timeout with 2:33 left to tie at 93, it looked bad for the Bulls.

But then, you know, Jimmy and Paul George’s last shots can kinda clash.