The Bulls Sunday had more grit, and so they ended up grinding out a 108-104 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
But not until Doug McDermott broke out of a shooting slump and poured in a career high 31 points, and Jimmy Butler finished it off with two clutch jump shots in the last minute and then stultifying defense on Grizzlies star Mike Conley trying to tie the game. It was the Bulls second straight win with Butler back from illness, enabling the team to get back to .500 at 21-21 and perhaps, finally, get in position for a playoff run.
With the victory over the tough Grizzlies, the Bulls improved to 7-4 overall, one of the league’s best records, over the teams with the top 10 records in the NBA. The Bulls also are 4-1 against the teams they have played among those with the top five records in the NBA. The Bulls moved back into eighth, a half game out of fifth in the East. The Grizzlies fell to 25-18
“The thing I was most impressed with our guys is we came out of the gate and we missed seven free throws, four layups, four wide open threes (in the first quarter trailing 19-14), shot 27 percent,” noted coach Fred Hoiberg. “They guard as well as any team in the league, but our guys stuck with it. Doug got it going in the second quarter (with 20 points), took the lid off the basket for us and we kept it going. Shooting over 50 percent (after 27 percent in the first quarter) against this Memphis team is very good and hopefully we can build on it.”
Maybe this time, yes they can.
After the slow start, it was one of the team’s premier performances of the season with McDermott finding his missing shot, Michael Carter-Williams with 14 points and seven rebounds playing what Hoiberg said was his best game as a Bull, posting up the smaller Conley for scores and defending impressively. Taj Gibson continued his imposing physical play with 18 points and eight rebounds, including two big fourth quarter dunks, and one earlier when Robin Lopez directed a Carter-Williams pass with his face right to Gibson for a dunk. Lopez with 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks and even had a chase down block reminiscent of LeBron James in last year’s finals on a second quarter fast break. Lopez later on his Twitter account wrote of the facial deflection play that basketball is in danger of growing stale, so he was taking it to strange new places.
For Butler with 16 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals, it was to a strangely familiar place again, the winning jumpers on his favorite right wing step back jumper, the first from 18 feet to give the Bulls a 104-102 lead with 53.6 seconds left. Then after Conley tied the game with 38.8 seconds left, it was Butler in his conventional new role as closer with a 15 footer with 26.1 seconds left for a 106-104 Bulls lead.
“It’s who he is,” said Hoiberg. “He’s not out there forcing up tough shots or contested shots. If guys are open, he’s making the right play. He’s going out and making the right play every time. You have a guy in Jimmy’s case that it doesn’t matter if he’s 10 for 10 or one for 10. He’s going to step up with confidence in that fourth quarter and try to take over the game with supreme confidence and that is a great luxury to have. When you have a guy like that, you put the ball in his hands and he can close the game for you.”
And then shut down the other guy. So with Memphis taking out the ball and a chance to tie, Butler switched onto Conley, who has been defended by Carter-Williams, and forced Conley into an off balance three with 8.9 seconds left that missed. McDermott rebounded and was fouled, making both free throws for the final margin. It then didn’t matter much with Memphis inbounding with 6.6 seconds left trailing by four.
But Butler then laid out like his football buddy Antonio Brown of Pittsburgh, diving in front of Conley, stretched out on the floor to steal the inbounds pass from Gasol to end the game.
Perhaps everyone would like to try it, but no one has basically come to deliver like Butler, especially with the team again incomplete with Dwyane Wade home for rest and Nikola Mirotic still ill. Though both could play Tuesday in the United Center against Dallas.
But if the Bulls can get a semblance of that sort of production from McDermott, it could change the season. The mantra, at least quietly, much of the season is how and where to get more floor spacing, three-point shooting, particularly from McDermott and Mirotic. Both have stumbled recently, McDermott lately with a total of 21 points in the last four games, shooting seven of 31. McDermott was down to 33 percent on threes, seemingly rushing and lacking confidence, missing a winning chance against Washington when he missed all his field goals. But he’s continued to work, and Hoiberg has insisted he would break out.
“Doug’s too good of a shooter to stay in a slump,” Hoiberg reiterated. “He puts too much work in and too much time in. He cares, obviously, and he takes it hard when he doesn’t have a good shooting game. The thing he does is he lives in the gym trying to get his confidence and his stroke back. So, I give Doug all the credit in the world for hanging with it.”
It started for McDermott to close the brutal first quarter with a layup, breaking a streak of 11 straight misses for the Bulls while the Grizzlies were missing their last eight shots of the quarter. The layup on a pass from Lopez got the Bulls within 19-14, and then the second quarter was magical for McDermott.
He didn’t hesitate and look for the perfect shot this time. He shot and was fouled, making two four-point plays. He went to the block and posted up against smaller defenders, he drove and got to the free throw line, made a runner, all the stuff that made him one of the greatest scorers in NCAA history and a lottery pick, but often went awry or missing with the Bulls.
McDermott said he worked on several sets and plays with Rajon Rondo, who has worked in as the facilitator with the second unit. It’s seemingly a better fit with the perimeter shooters like McDermott, Mirotic and Denzel Valentine instead of Butler and Wade, who tend to play more mid range and like to control the ball. Rondo can thus push the ball more with a second unit group more anxious to get up court.
“We (with Rondo) kind of went over some sets we were going to put in,” said McDermott. “Just quick pin downs in transition. We executed them well. You can’t be perfect every game, so you just have to find a way to contribute out there and continue to work on your game and that’s what I’ve done. I was rewarded by the hard work, so it was good. It was crazy (in the second quarter). I was just in the zone. I had a few last year against Toronto that were like that. It’s a great feeling. I hadn’t been shooting great, so just to see a couple go through was a great feeling.”
It worked effectively as Rondo connected with McDermott, who scored 14 straight Bulls points in one segment, and then Gibson closed the half with a pair of jumpers for a 52-46 Bulls halftime lead. After shooting 27 percent and scoring a season low 14 first quarter points, the Bulls tied their quarter season high with 38 second quarter points on 70 percent shooting. McDermott also set career highs in the game with 10 of 11 free throws. Lopez had that chase down with the Bulls ahead 46-40 that led to a Butler driving score. Though Memphis made it close with a pair of threes to close the half trailing 52-46. Once an inside team, the Grizzlies attempted 32 threes, Conley three of nine and with a team high 28 points. Marc Gasol had 24.
The Bulls after halftime were letting loose against the rugged Grizzlies, second in the league in field goal defense. Lopez directed that face pass, coincidently, it seemed, to Gibson for a dunk early in the third. Carter-Williams exerted himself with eight points, posting up the smaller Conley as Butler moved earlier to point guard with Carter-Williams often off the ball. Butler seemed to bang his left hand, but said afterward he was good. Very good.
The Bulls led just 78-77 after three, and then lost that narrow lead in a fourth quarter with six lead changes and five ties. Gibson had a three-point play to make it 89-87 Bulls and Lopez had another to make it 92-91 Bulls. Butler’s three made it 95-93 Bulls after Butler had seven points through three quarters.
And then it was Butler to close it out like the great ones do.
“Jimmy took over in the fourth quarter like we’re all used to and it was just a crazy environment to play in, just a big road win,” said McDermott of the Martin Luther King game on ESPN with big pregame ceremonies. “Just give him the ball. It’s great to have him back. We’ve won two in a row since he’s been back and I think everyone has seen how important he is to us. When I was rolling in the second quarter, he came up to me and said, ‘Keep coming to the ball even when I got it. I’m not feeling it right now, so continue to get your shots.’ It just shows a lot about him. He’s very unselfish and we want him to be selfish in the fourth quarter.”