Technically, it was a defeat Saturday night, the Bulls losing an early 19-point lead and their four-game winning streak in falling to the Los Angeles Clippers 102-95.
But it was much closer than even that score suggested, a fierce, emotional, physical game that was the best of the NBA, a game in which the Bulls continued to declare themselves serious competitors even with the loss. And a game that deteriorated late into a welter of questionable technical foul calls against the Bulls, coach Fred Hoiberg’s first ejection for pretty much shrugging his shoulders, a disputed foul call that often is at the root of these things, but also a Bulls team not about to accept the superiority of anyone else in the NBA.
“We didn’t let it get away; it got away,” said Dwyane Wade, who led the Bulls with 28 points and eight rebounds, five of nine on three pointers. “It’s a good team over there. There are a lot of things that went into it. We have to be better at certain moments, but we played good enough to win. I’ll take that game any night on the road or at home. If we do that we’ll be successful.”
The Bulls fell to 8-5 and 2-1 on the current road trip. The Clippers are 12-2. Jimmy Butler added 22 points, though shooting five of 18. Rajon Rondo back from missing two games with a sprained ankle had nine points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
No one wants to celebrate a defeat, and the Bulls had weaknesses. The reserves were outscored 33-15 with the Clippers’ Marreese Speights doing the damage with 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter when the Clippers outscored the Bulls 30-18. Speights’ eight points in a two-minute stretch midway through the quarter with a pair of threes altered the game for the Clippers as they turned an 82-77 deficit into and 87-85 lead. Though the controversial play was after a clutch Isaiah Canaan three with 44.7 seconds left to bring the Bulls within 97-95.
The Clippers ran down the clock and with one tenth of a second left on the shot clock, Butler appeared to make a clean defensive play on Blake Griffin, who was falling backward as he shot. Referee Marc Davis called a foul on Butler with 20.8 seconds left. Griffin made both free throws and after a Wade three missed, Davis ended up giving Gibson a technical foul and ejecting Hoiberg despite what seemed a mild reaction from the Bulls.
“All I know is I saw one second left, Jimmy got his hand on the ball. I’m, ‘OK, he has to force something up.’ My job was to get the rebound and box Speights out and we were going to go,” said Wade. “I’m not the ref; but I know he (Griffin) picked the ball up off the ground and fell back and got a foul. I don’t know what the call was, but it’s tough when you have two teams giving it everything they have and for us to lose that way it hurts. We have to pick ourselves up because we have a back to back tomorrow (Lakers). But it’s not going to be easy to get over that. You can take losing in this league, but you don’t want to lose that way. I thought Jimmy did a great job of getting in his air space, making him turn his back, making him lose the ball and throw up a prayer and his prayer got answered.”
It wasn’t a fourth quarter deliverance for the Bulls, who shot four of 18 and two of 11 on threes as the Clippers crawled back behind their reserves. Clippers coach Doc Rivers employed a unique closing lineup with primarily reserves, center DeAndre Jordan only playing the last few seconds and shooter J.J. Redick just a minute. Rivers went with Griffin and Speights, two big men who shoot well outside along with a potpourri of guards, mostly Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers.
The change effectively benched Bulls starter Robin Lopez, who was good early against Jordan, shooting five of six. Hoiberg used Bobby Portis extensively in the fourth quarter, though he got caught laying off Speights a few times. But with Doug McDermott out with a concussion and Nikola Mirotic with a one of seven shooting game and zero for five on threes, Hoiberg felt he had to try the more mobile Portis.
“Speights hit a lot of shots out there,” noted Hoiberg. “He was picking and popping; we felt we needed two guys who could get back out to him, so we had Bobby on the floor in the fourth. This is a great team playing the best basketball in the league. We fought them and gave ourselves a chance.”
In large part because of the game plan the Bulls employed coming into the game.
Wade went right at the smaller, weaker Redick to start. And with Wade’s shot accurate, the Bulls took a 33-23 lead after the first quarter. Rondo did a good job pressuring Chris Paul up court, and it wasn’t until Rondo went out that Paul got into the offense. The Bulls also did nice work controlling Griffin inside. The Clippers’ star led them with 26 points and 13 rebounds. But the Bulls early in the game kept him in control with a double team from the top of the floor when Griffin tried to set up in the post. That left him shooting mostly jump shots, which helped feed the Bulls lead.
“I thought Rondo battled,” said Hoiberg. “I thought his pickup point was where we wanted him, picking up full court, applying pressure. Our pace was better because of him in the game. When he has the ball and guys run with him, generally good things happen.”
Wade was electric with his deft floor game, 10 points in the first quarter and 18 in the first half. His spinning fadeaway jumper and pair of threes to start the second quarter silenced the home crowd as the Bulls took a 45-26 lead with 7:19 left in the first half.
“We’ve been talking about getting off to faster starts,” said Wade. “They had a game last night. For me, I got the opportunity to get it going and took advantage of my opportunities.”
The Bulls still were leading 47-31 when Wade came out as he did end up playing 36 minutes with another game Sunday. But despite some ferocious play from the Bulls like Rondo in a full dive wresting with Griffin for the ball, the offense went limp with a bit too much isolation. It enabled the Clippers to pull within 52-47 at halftime.
“Didn’t finish the quarter,” said Rondo. “We got stagnant, standing there watching.”
Wade came right back out to start the third quarter with a fadeaway falling down baseline 16 footer and then when he made a turnover he practically ran over Paul to get the steal to make up for it. Wade seems almost in a fury sometimes in those circumstances. The Bulls pulled back ahead 64-56 on a Butler three point play as Rondo led him like a quarterback and went into the fourth quarter leading 77-72.
But the Bulls couldn’t make enough in the fourth. Rondo was all over the boards with three offensive, one between three Clippers players. Wade made a three to retake the lead at 85-84 with 6:31 left and a bit of a Jordanesque pose.
Butler tied it with free throws before a Crawford three from Paul gave the Clippers a 92-87 lead with 3:14 left. The Clippers pretty much complain all game, and Paul finally got called for a technical with a foul against Wade, the three shots bringing the Bulls within 92-90 with 2:49 left.
Griffin plowed over Rondo on a switch for a score, the Bulls scattered trying to get out to the Clippers’ shooters. But Rondo rebounded a Butler miss to get Butler two free throws and Canaan made the pressure three with the 44.7 seconds left. Perhaps without the foul call the Bulls were on the break to tie with 20 seconds left. But, alas.
“We’re a grinding team,” said Wade. “We are going to defend, we are going to make teams play. We are going to continue with that mindset. They had to dig deep into their bags tonight to pull this one out at home. That’s what we want to do. Not the outcome we wanted, but the performance we wanted overall. If a team beats us we want them to walk away scarred up and feeling like they got away with one and that’s what they should be feeling like today. All we can do is talk about not letting it linger and hope it doesn’t.”