It’s now with Tuesday’s 108-92 loss in Memphis time for the tragic number for the Bulls—the number of games to be eliminated from the playoffs—in a season that started with joy and hope and appears to be ending as a basketball tragedy.
“I told the guys,” related Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I said, ‘I never quit in my life and I ain’t quittin’ on you now.’ We’re going to keep going out and fighting, try to get these guys right tomorrow and go out with a good effort in Miami.”
And then there was one……or two or three. Counting it down.
The Bulls fell back to 39-39 with the loss in which they committed 20 turnovers for 38 Memphis points—against a team spiraling down as well with six straight losses—were beaten badly on the boards until a fruitless fourth quarter rally from a 21-point deficit with 8:45 left and didn’t get a point from Jimmy Butler until the last four minutes.
Though still two games behind the eighth place Detroit Pistons, who lost to Miami, the Bulls have just four games left and the Pistons have the tiebreaker. Thus the Pistons would eliminate the Bulls with two wins or two more Bulls losses. Indiana is a half game ahead of Detroit in seventh place, but the Bulls own the tiebreaker. The Pacers magic number to make the playoffs over the Bulls would be three. The Bulls are in Miami Thursday
“It’s confusing,” said Butler, who finished with five points on two of eight shooting in 35 minutes. “Call it what you want, disappointing. But we still have a fighting chance. We have to go out there and compete; just have to win. I think winning will take care of everything and winning will get us in the playoffs.”
Not playing like they did Tuesday.
Derrick Rose returned from an elbow injury and had 12 points and eight assists but with five turnovers. Nikola Mirotic led with 20 points on six of nine three pointers and Pau Gaosl added 17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Though the mystery, at least for this one, remained Butler, who had been playing his best in two months, averaging almost 26 points the last three games. He was zero for five on all long jump shots in the first half and then played almost eight third quarter minutes without a shot attempt.
“I don’t feel like I did my job on either side of the floor tonight,” Butler conceded. “I didn’t make shots, I didn’t get other guys involved, I didn’t guard anybody. It’s easy to follow suit whenever I don’t do it. I took myself out of the game. I don’t know why. It’s disappointing; I’m disappointed in myself because I know that I’m too good a player for that.
“That’s my fault to this organization, to my teammates,” said Butler. I’ve got to be better.”
It really only was one more mystery in a season filled with it, so much promise derailed by a succession of injuries—Taj Gibson and E’Twaun Moore were out Tuesday—and the Bulls spiraling out of contention. And seemingly even out of the playoffs, something no one could have imagined or predicted a few months ago, and certainly not the players.
“This is the first time I know I have been in this position,” said Rose. “I think the majority of the guys it’s the first time they’ve been in this position. So we have to figure it out some way or another. I really don’t know (what’s happened.) Same message (Hoiberg) had throughout the entire year: Keep playing hard. I think everyone is surprised; still can’t believe it. It’s going to be a long night, for sure.”
It was a short one, in a sense, for the Bulls Tuesday even as they trailed just 23-21 after the first quarter. It was the Grizzlies who came out seemingly resigned to sliding out of the playoffs in the Western Conference. They missed nine of their first 12 shots, but the Bulls couldn’t take advantage with their own lethargic start that carried through much of the game. The Bulls were equally inefficient, hanging onto a 13-12 lead with just over three minutes left in the first quarter when the Grizzlies made both a physical and symbolic statement to wrest control of the game. They would not trail again.
Vince Carter, who recently turned 50, missed a three. Zach Randolph—the Grizzlies are without injured Marc Gasol and Mike Conley—rebounded. Randolph missed and Carter rebounded. Carter missed again—yes, 62-year-old Vince–and then missed his putback, which was put back by Randolph
It was a surprise none of the Bulls standing by gave them a standing ovation: 14-13 Memphis.
Mike Dunleavy missed a three. JaMichael Green missed. I sort of knew who he was, but wasn’t sure who were Xavier Mumford and Jarell Martin, who were six of 10 shooting. Mirotic grabbed the Green miss, but Tony Allen just ripped it away and put it back in for a 16-13 Grizzlies lead. Hardly insurmountable with 38 minutes to go, but the Grizzlies took the ball and held it above the heads of the Bulls and wouldn’t give it back.
“Talked about a couple of things that were huge keys in this game, turnovers and offensive rebounds,” said Hoiberg. “That’s exactly what got us; scored 38 points off our 20 turnovers and they beat us up on the boards. That possession said it all in the first half when they got three chances at it, ripped the ball out of our hands and they were the absolute aggressors. It’s very disappointing, very disappointing to throw away an opportunity like this especially with Detroit losing tonight.”
The game was close into the second quarter, Memphis leading 34-30 with about seven minutes remaining when the Memphis players began making shots. With their attitude, and the Bulls unable to thwart Zach Randolph, with first Gasol, then Bobby Portis, then Mirotic and finally Cristiano Felicio having some success, the Grizzlies went on a 13-5 run to lead 52-38. The Grizzlies led 54-44 at halftime. Randolph had 27 points and 10 rebounds in the game. Carter finished with 17.
“Sometimes we look like a really good team; sometimes we just look awful,” said Butler. “I don’t know what the basis of it is. Why? I can’t answer that.”
The start of the third quarter, as it so often has, firmed up the Bulls inevitable and perhaps inexorable fate for the night, if not the season. Rose was beaten off the dribble, Butler left his man open for threes, Randolph stepped outside after beating the Bulls left constantly—he’s left handed!—and the Grizzlies hit the Bulls with a 20-12 run for a 74-56 lead with four minutes left in the third quarter. It was 83-65 after three and 91-70 with 8:45 left when the Bulls made a little run with a Mirotic three and Rose and Doug McDermott runners. But the Grizzlies just banged inside to get back to the free throw line, and then with 4:29 left Butler drove to the basket for the first time.
“He’s (Butler) fine physically,” said Hoiberg. “Jimmy couldn’t get into his rhythm like he had the last few games. So in the fourth quarter he got aggressive, drove it in, made a couple of good plays. That’s what we need the entire game out of Jimmy. Derrick came out pushing the ball; our pace is much better with Derrick in the game. It was good to have him back out there; a little rusty. Hopefully, he’ll come out and play Miami and knock down those shots he normally makes.”
With Butler having his poorest game in years and a tough time against elite defender Allen, one narrative again will be the incompatibility of Rose and Butler. Of course, there’s no basic reason for that because if you are and want to be a star player you play with everyone and anyone.
“Yeah, I’m fine (physically),” Butler said. “I just have to go out there and do my job, put everything else to the side and go out there and win. That’s what I’m about; tonight I didn’t feel I did that. I don’t feel I was anywhere near doing that. That’s on me every single night.”
It was probably just one of those games; as it rarely occurs it can happen. After all, Butler was on the floor for long stretches without Rose, four minutes in the first quarter alone when he didn’t take a shot. And then late in the game when Butler ran out for a score, it was Rose setting him up with a long pass for a dunk as Rose assisted on both Butler baskets.
Plus, as they were returning to the floor and on the bench they were frequently gesturing and discussing positioning.
“When you give a team like that (life) that is desperate…we can’t come out that way,” said Rose. (My elbow) feels good. Like I said, it will take time, some games to catch a rhythm. So my job is just to come in and not (mess) up the game.”
There’s a lot messed up these days pretty much everywhere they look.
“Got to come out and fight,” said Hoiberg. “That’s what it’s all about. I hope like hell we do it on Thursday.”