If the Bulls are going down for the count in this battle to make the playoffs, at least they are going down fighting.
The Bulls Sunday allowed a 19-point lead — 16 at halftime — to slip away as they let the Milwaukee Bucks get within a point three different times in the fourth quarter. But Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore and Jimmy Butler each time came through with clutch baskets, and Butler and Justin Holiday closed it out for a 102-98 Bulls victory.
It gave the Bulls a 39-38 record, though just barely standing in the Eastern Conference with the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers holding down seventh and eighth places at 41-36. But the Bulls aren’t quite down for the count yet, so there is a chance.
“A win’s a win, home, away, by no matter how many points,” said Butler, whose sterling play again carried the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson out injured. “It’s not about points when you are looking at who is in the eighth seed; it’s all about winning and losing. So we continue to win; hopefully we’ll find ourselves there. I’m just happy to win, stay in this playoff race. Whoever we play on Tuesday (Memphis), we need to win that one, too.”
Butler had 25 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Pau Gasol added 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists and Nikola Mirotic, often playing off Gasol, had 19 points as finding that one stretch shooter off the bench has been pivotal in Bulls wins. And again it was to the rescue Butler, who scored two crucial baskets after the Bucks got within 87-86 with 5:39 remaining.
The Bulls avoided the knockout punch, though mostly because of a good defensive sequence that helped force the Bucks into four empty fourth quarter possessions trailing by one. First Holiday dropped off to trap Tyler Ennis, who was being guarded by E’Twaun Moore. Moore picked off Ennis’ pass back out. The Bulls blew the four-on-two break failing to spread out in lanes and Ennis made a great play coming back to tie up Holiday. The Bucks stole the tap. The Bulls then finally got in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had a career high 34 points, as Gasol in help mode forced him to hit the back rim on a drive.
Mirotic missed a three. Moore did a good job on a switch on Antetokounmpo, who passed to Ennis for a miss. Butler then picked up a loose ball when Holiday lost it on a drive, posted up Ennis and spun by for a dunk and 89-86 lead with 3:45 left. Moore got Antetokounmpo on a switch again. But Mirotic cut off his drive with double team help. Ennis then drove and lost the ball—don’t they have any point guards?—and Butler then walked the ball slowly into the front court as he does. But this time, he burst left and beat two Bucks defenders for a layup and 91-86 Bulls lead with 3:04 remaining.
The Bucks got back within 91-89 with 2:12 left on a Rashad Vaughn 10 footer. Then Mirotic finished cutting to the basket on a clever pass from Gasol for a score. Jabari Parker with 24 points matched that with a 16 footer. But then came two more big Bulls shots. First it was the surprising Holiday with a corner 20 footer with three seconds on the shot clock. And then after a pair of Parker free throws, it was Butler going to the right elbow about where he hit the shot to beat Indiana last week with the same brush screen, this time with Mike Dunleavy, and again defenders confused. Butler made the 17 footer with 51.9 seconds left for a 97-93 Bulls lead.
The Bucks went to their ace, Antetokounmpo. He came up short on a drive and Holiday came flying in to grab the defensive rebound. The Bulls converted free throws to close it out and escape to play another meaningful day.
“I’m really proud of the guys for how they’ve found a way to win three tough road games,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We’ve got two more coming up this week and then next week in New Orleans. We’ve got to go out and worry about ourselves, put a complete game together and give ourselves a chance. That’s all we can ask for.”
And so the Bulls try to make something out of this disappointing season with their third win in the last four games, all the wins on the road. It’s also the third time in the last four games they’ve allowed fewer than 100 points after giving up at least 100 points in nine of the previous 10 games. It’s in that stretch the Bulls finally lost control of their injury-plagued season if it does come to that with five games left.
The Bulls best chance to make the playoffs probably is with Indiana, against whom they have the tiebreaker. The Pacers squeaked by the 76ers and Knicks without Carmelo Anthony this weekend and now face the Cavs and Raptors. The Bulls go to Memphis and Miami this week. But their fate, effectively, is out of their control now. So it’s just win, baby.
Hoiberg said Gibson likely will miss this trip with his cracked rib and said Rose will test his hyperextended elbow Monday. In their place, it’s been Butler playing considerable point guard and returning to the form of his first half of the season when he was an All-Star. Butler missed a month after a knee injury in early February. But in his last three games, he is averaging 24.7 points, 10 rebounds and 8.7 assists. After shooting 10 of 11 Sunday in Milwaukee, Butler is shooting 57 percent, though three of 11 on threes.
“I like all the weight on my shoulders; it will make me better,” said Butler, who has been embracing his go-to role. “I love criticism. Because I like to silence my doubters. I’m very confident in my game. I’ve said that all along. I’ll continue to work, so I’ll continue to be confident in taking those shots.
“I think I kind of have to do it now,” Butler said about being more assertive. “I think everybody kind of looks at me to do so. With the deal I just signed and being one of the better players on this team. When Fred is putting the ball in my hand late he knows I’m going to make the right decision, whether it’s to shoot the ball or to pass it.”
Though it’s also been Mirotic’s shooting.
It’s no coincidence in these last three Bulls wins, Mirotic is a combined 15 of 32 on threes. In the Saturday loss to Detroit, he was a quiet two of four on threes and two of seven shooting overall. In the three wins, he averaged 16 shot attempts.
“Niko is playing with good rhythm and a lot of confidence right now,” said Hoiberg. “It’s good to see Doug (McDermott with three of five) out there not hesitating shooting the ball. I thought our bench gave us really good minutes in that second quarter to extend the lead (33-17 Bulls second quarter). And then gave us important minutes in that third quarter. I thought Cris Felicio again—he didn’t finish a couple of plays—but as far as rim roller and guy who opens things up for Doug and Niko is very important.”
In this frustrating season with questions about personnel, the Bulls seem to have quietly hit on two players. Neither will be the so called final piece, but they look like components who can fit going forward. Felicio, who was a summer league look see, had an athletic finish on a rolling dunk and five rebounds in 14 minutes. But it was Holiday who has been the surprise and displaced Tony Snell.
Holiday is leading the team in fourth quarter minutes the last three games. He played all 12 Sunday, all but 18 seconds against Detroit and 10 fourth quarter minutes in the win in Houston. With Butler and Moore, he’s given the Bulls a sharper defensive edge in the fourth quarters and aggressive board work.
And this from a player the Bulls probably just wanted to take a look at in the February Kirk Hinrich deal. Holiday had played 15 minutes in the previous 16 games with Atlanta, his 11th team in four years including the D-league, Belgium, Hungary and last season on the bench with Golden State. And he’s still waiting for his championship ring. Though this is more fun.
“It means a lot,” Holiday said about finding himself a key player in the Bulls fourth quarter rotation. “Obviously it’s what everyone in this league must be able to do, what we always work toward. To be out there I feel comfortable. The guys make me feel comfortable, the coach. As long as I have the effort I’ll be comfortable and I’ll play as hard and as smart as I can.”
Holiday, whose brother Jrue plays for New Orleans, is a buoyant figure in the locker room, as perhaps you’d expect from a player finally getting a chance. He’s rarely without a welcoming smile or positive word.
“I missed too many before that point so I had to get one,” he said about his pressure corner jumper. “I was open. I knew I was going to catch and shoot. I saw my man leaving to go get Jimmy, so that’s what you are thinking: When you catch it just knock it down.
“It gets brought up times talking with family,” Holiday said about his circuitous basketball journey. “I just try to move on, stay in the now, enjoy where I am. There are times I’ve thought about I went from wearing a suit to coming here playing. I’m thankful and blessed to be in this situation. I’m very excited and happy I’m on the court contributing.”
It seems likely he’ll return as the Bulls locked him up for next season with a modest deal and have an option on Felicio. So a few good ancillary moves, though there is business to do after the season.
The Bulls still are hoping it will extend beyond five more games. Sunday they were able to continue to make their case.
Hoiberg called plays early for Dunleavy in an effort to get him out of his slump, and he did open with a three to along with Gasol help the Bulls to a 24-16 lead. The Bucks scored the last eight points to close the quarter tied at 24. Then it looked like the Bulls would buck their previous trends as Mirotic made three of four threes for 11 second quarter points, McDermott added a pair of tough drives for scores and the Bulls took a 55-36 lead and 57-41 at the half.
But in what they’ve endured before with big leads, the starters came out after halftime apparently admiring Antetokounmpo’s play. The Bucks hit the cautious Bulls with an 18-6 start and it was a tug-of-war the rest of the way.
“I was really encouraged with the way we started the game,” said Hoiberg. “That’s how we’re supposed to play, getting out on the break. We had great pace, had the ball moving. I think we had 20 assists at halftime (19 and 30 for the game). Third quarter, we came out with a complete lack of and then we let them right back in it. We made the necessary plays down the stretch when they pulled back within a possession. Jimmy made play after play. The beginning of the game was great. The end of the game was good. That third quarter, we have to figure out a way to come out and again bury a team when you’ve got them down.”
The Bulls obviously did enough. And Antetokounmpo is really good. But he’s predictable and the Bulls let him have his way. He basically always ends up going right. He’s incredibly long, though he is a not point guard, as Bucks coach Jason Kidd claims. He’s got amazing moves inside, but the Bulls kept letting him get to his right hand. It always sounds easier than done, as teams still never push Manu Ginobili off his left hand. The Bulls also often allowed Antetokounmpo to get inside the three point circle before picking him up, and it’s often too late by then. Of course, I always ask that about Stephen Curry as well.
It was apparent that Butler wore down late in the Saturday loss to Detroit. So Hoiberg started Butler on someone named Damien Inglis with Khris Middleton a late scratch. Finally, the Bulls got an opponent injury break. So with Dunleavy and McDermott at small forward, the Bulls weren’t really equipped well to defend Antetokounmpo, anyway.
Butler did switch onto him midway through the fourth quarter. But given the Bulls switch pick and rolls so often, Moore had him just as much. Antetokounmpo only had seven points in the fourth quarter, but he did play 43 minutes.
The Bulls got nine points in the third from Butler and a few of those timely driving scoops from Brooks to salvage a 79-73 lead after three quarters. Milwaukee came right out in the fourth with a 9-4 run to get within 83-82 with 9:15 left. This time the Bulls had several clutch shots to go around and a win not falling off the platter thanks to Butler.
“We’ve gone with Derrick to finish off some games and Jimmy to close out a lot when they’ve played together,” said Hoiberg. “It’s basically who has the better matchup or whoever has it going; we’re obviously a better team when Derrick (also) is out there.
“He (Butler) wants the ball in his hands and he’s done a great job for us closing out games,” said Hoiberg. “We get in a close, low possession game like that and Jimmy is the guy with the ball in his hand who generally has made the right play. Especially as the year has gone on. You can see him getting more comfortable in that role.”
And so they still are standing, wobbled, but ready to go back in again.