Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a rare visit to the White House last week in what was termed a mutual friendship visit.
Could it have been he was there to complain about the Bulls?
“Something about it, the matchups maybe,” said Doug McDermott. “I don’t have anything against them, no grudges against them or anything. I just play well against them.”
And so do his teammates as the Bulls, inexplicably, finished up a four-game season series sweep Monday over the Toronto Raptors with a 109-107 victory, the Bulls ninth consecutive victory over a Raptors team that has been bearing down on front running Cleveland.
The Bulls with three starters out–Derrick Rose with a hamstring injury, Pau Gasol with a knee problem and Mike Dunleavy ill—and Jimmy Butler returning from a knee injury and having his playing time limited, nevertheless, outlasted the Raptors in a thrilling last minute the Bulls closed with two clutch free throws from Nikola Mirotic and a game saving block on DeMar DeRozan by Butler.
McDermott had 29 points, the second most of his career after setting his career high with 30 the last time the Bulls played Toronto. E’Twaun Moore and Mirotic each scored 17 points while Butler added 13 and Taj Gibson playing center had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Plus, Gibson showed off his own game protecting series with 4:12 to go and the Raptors cutting a Bulls’ 13-point fourth quarter lead to six. Gibson rebounded each of consecutive misses by Butler and McDermott against the bigger Raptors and then spun and drove for a layup to stop a Raptors’ run.
The Bulls would get one more field goal the rest of the game, a Butler 20 footer for a 106-98 lead with 1:55 left.
Then it was left to Mirotic to coolly drop in two free throws with the home crowd in full voice with 16 seconds left and the Bulls leading 106-105. That was after a seeming meltdown that included Butler being blocked on a drive, Moore shooting an air ball and Mirotic missing the follow, Mirotic trying to dribble out of the backcourt with 33.8 seconds left and losing the ball leading 106-102. And then Justin Holiday called for a five-second inbounds violation with 25.8 seconds left, super fan Drake, the Spike Lee of Canada, screaming in his ear and the Bulls holding on 106-103.
DeMar DeRozan, who had 27 points, then drove in for a score to bring Toronto within one with 19.6 seconds left. Eventually came the foul on Mirotic and the pressure free throws for a 108-105 Bulls lead with 16 seconds.
Kyle Lowry with 33 points then made his way easily for another layup. Butler was fouled and made one of two free throws, giving the Raptors a chance to tie with another drive with 5.9 seconds left.
But Butler made the defensive save, cutting off DeRozan after a high screen and getting his hand on the ball as DeRozan tried to go up for the shot. After a review, it was ruled off DeRozan with seven tenths of a second left. DeRozan intercepted the inbounds with two tenths but could do nothing but fling up a full court miss.
“A win is a win. No matter how (crappy, five for 18) I played, we did our job,” said Butler. “At the end of the day, we won on the road, big win. I’m proud we got this one.
“I’ve guarded him (DeRozan) plenty,” noted Butler. “I know you bring that ball down you got to bring it up to get to the basket. Luckily, I had a quick enough hand to get a piece of it and it hit off his knee. We took it the other way.
“That credits our guys, everybody stepping up into a new role,” Butler added. “Obviously, Doug is playing extremely well, E’Twaun, Niko. I think those guys are the reason we won. I think everyone had a piece in it, but those guys played extremely well for us.”
Perhaps the team thing is a cliché, but this was as close to one of those as a team gets.
It was without question one of the best Bulls’ wins of the season even if it was nothing new against the Raptors. Though one of those also took a 40-point second half from Butler for a two-point win. So the Bulls aren’t quite in their heads yet with two-point wins.
But this one for the Bulls came with the team seemingly certain to fall below .500 this late in the season for the first time in six years. They are now 33-32. Toronto is 44-21.
The Bulls also are desperately scrambling just to reach the playoffs and with Detroit’s loss in Washington moved back into a tie for eighth in the Eastern Conference. So not only is each game vital, but this one was difficult even to make the case for the Bulls: Toronto had to be waiting for the Bulls at 0-3. They were the East’s hottest home team winning 14 of their last 15 and threatening the Cavaliers for first. And then this makeshift lineup with Gibson at center backed up by Cristiano Felicio, Justin Holiday starting again at shooting guard, Mirotic back in the starting lineup for the first time in months, two of the three top scorers out and the leading one, Butler, playing in six minute segments until the fourth quarter and admittedly exhausted throughout the game and reaching for his knees in every stoppage of play.
“Tired, man,” Butler said afterward. “I’m out of shape. I’ve got a couple of more days to get it back; as long as we keep winning, tired or not, I’m happy. I think my knee is going to be banged up a little, got to live with it. Get my wind back, get in that gym and get my rhythm back. I’m looking forward to these games coming up”
And perhaps now the Bulls can look ahead as well after six losses in the last eight games had sent them into a depressing spiral to the edge of playoff hope.
It seemed mission impossible coming to Toronto at this time when hardly anyone wanted to acknowledge their existence.
“It’s a great win,” agreed Gibson. “Like I said before, we have more than enough to win on different nights. It’s all about confidence, guys going out and playing hard, believing in one another. Everybody was believing. Jimmy was pushing guys, telling guys to shoot and everyone was taking shots and it worked out for us.
“I don’t care what people think because at the end of the day they aren’t on the court with us, aren’t in the huddle,” said Gibson. “We’re in the locker room and we put the work in, which people don’t understand. People are going to say what they want to say. We have to do it on the court; we still have a lot of games left and a short time frame. But you can’t worry about what anyone thinks. We have to go out there and play.”
And Gibson says he’ll continue as well even as he said his hamstring acted up Monday.
“I’m no stranger to this. I remember when Thibs had me and Luol (Deng) play four/five,” said Gibson. “I played a straight 48 (minutes) two straight games on a back to back, so I’m no stranger to playing five (center). Nowadays in this new league you are going to have small fives; it’s all about knowing your opponent, knowing what you have to do on defense and playing your game.
“Just went after it knowing every possession is important. My hamstring was killing me tonight,” Gibson revealed. “I felt I wasn’t doing enough on the defensive end and the offensive end. That fourth quarter turned around for me. Got a second spurt and I was just trying to calm the guys down. We had a solid lead, but we were taking stupid shots. And rushing. I kept trying to corral it and get a good shot for us. This was one of those plays that opened up for us and I took it to the basket. I should be fine, some ice and some rest. I can’t rest right now.”
No rest for the weariest in what promises to be a wild ride down the stretch for a potential playoff berth. No one could have imagined five months ago that’s what this season would be about for a team talking, if not championship, certainly serious Eastern Conference challenger to the defending East champ Cavaliers. The intersection of bad luck and bad health has left the Bulls at what seemed like a dead end street toward oblivion.
But games like Monday’s when no one gave the Bulls much of a chance, and no one would have faulted them for a sub standard effort, demonstrated they’ll at least compete the rest of the way and won’t give in or give up.</p?
It obviously made a difference to have Butler back.
Perhaps he’s not the ideal leader, but he is the ideal competitor and the commitment he delivers to the game can be inspiring.
“Jimmy impacts the game in so many ways,” said McDermott. “Defensively, Jimmy is really vocal out there. He challenges all of us defensively and I think that’s huge. He’s a great voice to have out there. He’s always in the right spot. He can make up for some of our mistakes on defense; you have to give him credit on his offense, too.”
It wasn’t Butler’s best offensive effort, but McDermott and Moore picked him up in the first half, McDermott especially with that wonderful stroke and some daring runners that even defied his description.
McDermott had 24 points in the first half, missing one shot as he was seven of seven from the field, three of three on threes and seven of eight on free throws. That enabled the Bulls to get that good start they seek with a 34-29 first quarter lead and 58-52 at the half.
“I was just in that zone,” agreed McDermott. “Everything I shot felt good. After I made my first couple, the second half was tough because they were all over me. But I felt in that zone the first half and I was happy I was able to help my team win.
“I don’t know how some of those (runners) went in; just one of those nights,” McDermott added. “It felt good out there and I hope I can use it going forward.”
The Raptors finally seemed to get McDermott on the scouting report in the second half, though the Bulls ball movement waned a bit. Though Butler’s presence is vital, even Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg noted the ball moved better when he was out a few times, thus getting McDermott more chances with movement.
“I thought our movement when Jimmy was out was really good,” Hoiberg said. “That first quarter when Jimmy came out, I thought the ball was flying around, guys were really sharing it. Doug obviously had it going and they did a good job finding him. They showed a lot of grit, a lot of resolve, a lot of toughness, and just really proud of the effort.”
Like that Butler game saver.
“Jimmy gives our team a big lift, a boost when he’s in the lineup,” Hoiberg added. “It was the same tonight. He gives you that defensive presence on the floor. I’ve been really pleased with Justin Holiday as well. I think he gives you another guy to use his length on the perimeter, a secondary defender out there on DeRozan.
“It’s a great win for our team for the way this team had been rolling, especially in this building, playing as well as any team in the East. It’s a tough place to win,” said Hoiberg. “That has to be our focus the rest of the year and if we do that we give ourselves a chance.”
It’s what the Bulls did in Toronto.
They made the plays in the second half as they got Toronto’s attention, a two handed driving dunk from Tony Snell, McDermott and Mirotic late threes, the battle from Gibson and then Mirotic’s super free throw swishes.
“I knew I was going to make both free throws, yes,” said Mirotic. “I lost the ball before that and I missed a shot. It can happen. I like those moments and I have confidence in myself. I knew I was going to make, so I was really not worried.”
“The years behind and that I know they want me to be on the floor, they trust me. I was really confident,” said Mirotic. “Feeling no pressure, nothing, so just normal two free throws.
“This game means a lot for us,” Mirotic noted. “Every game now is like a last game of the regular season; we are fighting to be in the playoffs and it’s been hard. Just imagine to play without three starters on our team. It’s very complicated, but we demonstrated that we never give up; we stay together. We played with heart, with everything we could and with confidence; that’s how we should play every day.”