There was concern for the Bulls Wednesday at halftime even as they trailed just 49-46. They again were playing indifferently, as coach Fred Hoiberg would pointedly note afterward, outscored 9-0 to start by a Brooklyn Nets team 1-14 on the road and giving up the most points per game in the league with the second poorest record.
So as Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade led the Bulls out to begin the second half, they talked. And they agreed what was necessary.
“We talked about it as we were coming out,” related Wade, who would leave the game in the fourth quarter with a migraine headache. “We said, ‘We both have to be aggressive.’ I was able to do that early and he was able to do that the whole second half.You can’t do it every night; maybe he can. I can’t do it every night no more. Sometimes your best player has to be your best player. Some nights your best player just has to say, ‘Hey, we’re the best players on the floor and we got to show that.’”
Butler did, and it saved the Bulls in a dramatic and thrilling 101-99 victory that had Wade running from the training table to embrace Butler, Butler fist pumping and dancing to midcourt as Bulls swarmed and embraced him after the first buzzer beating game winner of his career, a 20 footer from the top of the floor in isolation for the victory.
“I like that play,” Butler said post game as he sat in his locker stall, Taj Gibson leaning over and mugging for the cameras as Butler answered questions. “Don’t put it in the playbook all the time; I’ll probably take a lot of bad shots out of that if he lets me run it too many times a game. (Coach said), ‘Give Jimmy the ball and everybody go to the corner and get out of the way. ‘I’m gonna get a basket.’ That’s what I was thinking.”
And oh what a big basket it was to culminate one of the best games of Butler career, 40 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four steals, 11 of 11 from the free throw line, 27 second half points and 13 in the fourth quarter in eight minutes, including nine of the Bulls last 11 points after the Nets took a 97-90 lead with 3:02 left in the game.
“The way the game was going, I guess I had a hot hand and the coach, players, were like, ‘Hey, make something happen.’ So in the end I did just that,” said Butler.
That was the biggest one, coming out of a timeout with 12.6 seconds left after Brook Lopez with 33 points turned down the lane and dunked ferociously over twin brother Robin to tie the game at 99.
Butler had been doing work to get the Bulls even there in what seemed like a losing cause just minutes before. Butler hadn’t been shooting well the last two weeks, averaging fewer than 20 points on about 40 percent shooting the previous six games. And then Butler was five of 15 in the first half.
But Butch and Sundance clearly had a plan.
Wade opened the third quarter with a pair of jumpers and two free throws, scoring eight of the Bulls first 12 points of the quarter. And then handing the baton to Butler, as they combined for 24 of the team’s 30 third quarter points.
But it’s a delicate mix when they do that; it obviously was needed as the Bulls shot 35 percent in the first half and drove Hoiberg to say he was disappointed even with the game winner the way the Bulls were outplayed at home to start the game.
Wade, who finished with 16 points, had been having a tough night. He went out early in the game with a bleeding cut finger after taking a fall. Another fall triggered his migraine headaches, which kept him out of a shootaround last week. He was receiving treatment in the locker room in the fourth quarter, but asked not to be declared out in case there was overtime.
Then with 4:51 left in the game and the Nets leading 93-88 when Butler missed on a drive, the Bulls gasped and called timeout as Butler crumpled to the floor.
“Everybody was holding their breath in a big way when he went down. It looked pretty serious,” said Hoiberg.
It looked like a knee injury, but Butler said he tweaked his ankle. He said he’ll see if it swells overnight. He was helped off and got treatment with time elapsing when Nikola Mirotic, of all guys, got into a skirmish with the Nets bench. It came after a Sean Kilpatrick miss. The ball bounded out toward the Nets bench with Mirotic chasing. He pushed Trevor Booker down as he wetn for the ball. Then trying to get it after it went out of bounds, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson refused to give Mirotic the ball. There was some pushing, former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie getting in and yelling some stuff at Mirotic, and eventually a double technical for Mirotic and Hollis-Jefferson. It gave Butler some time, and he went back in with 4:24 left. And was he needed.
Mirotic missed a runner, but the Nets stepped out of bounds with the rebound. Butler went over a good screen from Rajon Rondo for his only three of the game with 2:24 left to bring the Bulls within 97-93 (the Nets made 13 threes to three for the Bulls). The Bulls trapped Lopez, who finally passed out to Randy Foye. He drove with the defense scrambled and was fouled by Mirotic. Foye with two minutes left and the Nets up by four missed the first. Then the crescendo from the United Center crowd peaked with the fourth quarter promotion of free chicken with two missed free throws. Foye missed again.
Butler dribbled up, slowed and then accelerated into the lane and was fouled by Lopez. Butler made both free throws, the Bulls 28 for 29 for the game, to bring the Bulls within 97-95 with 1:50 left. Robin Lopez came in to defend his brother, who was being guarded by Gibson and doubled. Rondo, who had 12 assists and nine rebounds, then made the big defensive play, knocking the ball away from Kilpatrick as he drove. Kilpatrick had gotten a step on Gibson on a switch, so Rondo came off his man. Kilpatrick tried to save the ball going out of bounds and threw it back, where Rondo intercepted with 1:37 left. Bulls still down two.
Butler went into the left corner. The Nets came up to double team. Butler threw on top of the floor to Michael Carter-Williams, who drove left and scooped in his first basket since returning from injury last game. That tied the game at 97 with 1:22 left. Lopez drove from the left side and missed and Butler rebounded and headed up court. He missed short from the top of the key. The Nets went to Lopez, who faced up his brother, drove and missed a reverse. The ball went out of bounds off the Bulls. The Nets called timeout with 41.5 seconds left. The Bulls were smothering on the inbounds now that they could put a defensive team on the floor with Gibson, Butler and Carter-Williams, and Butler stole the inbounds when Foye couldn’t find anyone and Carter-Williams and Butler sandwiching Lopez. Butler dribbled up and into a left elbow jumper from 12 feet for a 99-97 Bulls lead with 27.7 seconds left. Then came that thunderous backyard dunk over your brother, Brook hanging on the rim and pounding his chest in celebration. Oh, brother!
So the Bulls got a win they needed, which is pretty much every one those days as they start another three in four nights Friday in Indianapolis. The Bulls are 16-16, two games out of both fourth and 12th in the Eastern Conference. The Nets are 8-23.
They shot just 39.8 percent and 23 percent on threes, but had a 55-38 rebounding advantage, 28-12 on free throws and with a massive 24 second chance points. Scoring is difficult. So they have to be sharp, and they weren’t to start.
“That was disappointing; I’m not going to lie,” Hoiberg said about the desultory first half with the team fully healthy for the first time since Oct. 31. “They took it right to us, came out of the gate with fire. We didn’t. It was disappointing in our own building to come out like that. We were letting our lack of shot making affect our overall game. That being said, we stuck with it and found some fire and energy and passion those last four or five minutes. That is the message: You have to play like that from the opening tip. You have to come out of the gate; you have to play. You can’t go through the motions and expect another team to lay down.”
Though this time they got to do some of that post game learning feeling a bit happier.
“We’ve been learning from a lot of losses,” said Wade. “It’s OK to learn from a win. We’re still trying to figure it out; we’re still trying to get the game we need constantly. Tonight, we were able to pull it out.
“I was in (the locker room) trying to get ready (for possible overtime),” said Wade. “Then I asked the trainer, ‘Jimmy going to win or we going to overtime?’ He said, ‘He’s going to win it.’ Jimmy was confident, the swagger down the stretch was big. This guy has been having an unbelievable year and that’s fitting he made a shot like that, ended the game like he did. I ‘m proud of him, happy for him.
“It was a big time shot,” said Wade, who knows of such things. “This team needed it. You turn to one of your leaders to do it. He had it going down the stretch. I think everybody in here could tell he was poised to do that. When he had the ball in his hand at the end we all knew what he was about to do. We called, ‘Step back’ in here. Everyone was like, ‘Step back, step back.’ Big time shot; just proud of him and came out to let him know.
“We found a way to win a game,” Wade added. “It’s not going to be pretty for this team to win games all year; we’ll have a few games where offensively we’re clicking. But for the most part we have to find ways to win; we have to win ugly sometimes.”
Though that was a beauty of a finish.