Perhaps the opponent ledger says it all—even if it’s mostly indecipherable—about this 2015-16 Bulls season that remains one Bulls loss or Indiana Pacers win from being eliminated from the playoffs. With Saturday’s 105-102 win over the conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls finish 7-1 against against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, 3-1 over the Cavs.
But the Bulls also finish 2-13, including being swept by the Hawks and Heat, against the teams in the third through sixth places in the Eastern Conference, none of whom are considered serious threats to reach the NBA Finals
“If you would have told me in the beginning of the year we would be 7-1 against the top two seeds and on the outside looking in, I would have told you you are crazy,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg after the Bulls rallied from an 11-point third quarter deficit. ”It is where we are. Our guys’ backs were against the wall. I told them they went out and showed great character by coming out and competing. I am happy for the guys for going out and getting this one.
“We have had some huge wins and some very disappointing losses over the course of the season,” agreed Hoiberg. “We had to come out and get this one. Our guys found a way to do that. We are obviously going to need some help down the stretch here and go out on the road and play well and hope for a miracle.”
It’s a long shot with the Pacers needing one victory to eliminate the 40-40 Bulls from the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Indiana plays Brooklyn at home Sunday night, then the Knicks at home Tuesday and in Milwaukee Wednesday. The Bulls are in New Orleans Monday and home against Philadelphia to close the regular season—and probably the rest of their season—Wednesday.
As encouraging as the national TV victory over the Cavs was Saturday—LeBron James doesn’t get to effectively end the Bulls season this time—it only further illustrates the potential of this Bulls team while highlighting how it evaporated through injuries, inconsistency and indifference.
“We show at times what we are capable of doing, the level we are capable of playing,” said Pau Gasol, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds. “But it also shows how difficult the situation we find ourselves in when we are capable of beating and competing against top teams that are leading our conference and have aspirations to win titles and we’re one loss, one win away from being eliminated. Very frustrating because if we showed this type of edge and competitiveness every single night we wouldn’t be talking about (being out of the playoffs).
“It hurts to know we are 7-1 against the two top teams in our conference and I think we also are 1-11, 1-12 (actually 1-10) against the next three teams in the conference, which is Atlanta, Boston and Miami. So we can’t just look at the record we have against the two top teams.”
Which only makes this season of such hope a myster. Most national observers and analysts predicted before the season the Bulls probably had the best chance to knock off the favored Cavs. The Bulls did win three of four from Cleveland, including the opener Oct. 27. But losing Joakim Noah for the season and then injuries and illnesses which knocked out Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and E’Twaum Moore for long stretches proved too difficult to overcome in the end.
The Bulls still were missing Gibson and Moore Saturday with Noah long gone. But they got 21 points from Butler, 13 points from Nikola Mirotic, 10 points from Derrick Rose and a career high 16 points on seven of seven shooting from Cristiano Felicio. Felicio played down the stretch for Gasol and along with rookie Bobby Portis with 10 rebounds gave the Bulls a boost of youth and energy that enabled them to take a 97-84 lead with 5:51 left and hang on even as the Cavs’ had a J.R. Smith three at the buzzer to tie.
“You can argue (Felicio) was the player of the game,” said Hoiberg. “Seven for seven, gobbling up rebounds. I thought his pick and roll defense was really good. I thought Justin Holiday was terrific as well. His ability to stay in front of Kyrie (Irving, scoreless in playing the entire fourth quarter) and forcing (three) turnovers was huge. The key we talked about halftime if we come out and rebound the ball we’d have a great chance to win the game. We had a goal of giving them five threes; they hit 19. So we were a little shy there.”
Yes, Hoiberg deserves to smile a little, also.
He managed the game adroitly, using Felicio most of the fourth quarter, cycling in Gasol for a key inbounds play catch with his height and free throw, alternating Rose with Aaron Brooks, the latter who paired well in pick and roll with Felicio and saving Butler for a late run that helped hold off James.
James was terrific with 33 points. Smith added 24 and Kevin Love had 20 points and 13 rebounds.
But you also could see from the way the Cavs played the game they want no part of the Bulls in post season. Even with the game having limited meaning to the Cavs, who would have to lose out while Toronto wins out to lose the top seed, James played almost 39 minutes and came back midway through the fourth quarter with the Bulls leading by nine. James also just happened to take a game off earlier in the week against Indiana and the Cavs lost. It was the Cavs first loss to Indiana this season after three wins. Who were the Cavs looking for in eighth?
But it’s the Bulls’ fault if they have an issue with that. Because they’re the ones who gave up so many of those early season games even when Noah did play and they were mostly healthy.
“We can’t go back and change anything,” said Butler. “We have to win the rest of these and hope that (Indiana) loses. It shows the resilience guys have in this locker room. We needed a win; we’ve been saying that. It just shows how competitive we are, that we can win games when we play the way we are supposed to play. We haven’t done that all year, but tonight we did. So we’re still fighting for the playoff spot, it’s (unfortunate) that our fate is in someone else’s hand.”
Some of the same issues that have bedeviled the team all season continued, like failing to get to loose balls, another slow start, trailing 17-6 to start, and again a fallow second half opening with the Cavs growing stronger. Cleveland ran out from a 54-50 halftime lead to a 70-59 margin on a James three—they were 19 for 40 on threes and James four of five—and were leading 73-63 with 4:43 left when Butler rallied the Bulls with 10 points in the last 4:18 to get the Bulls within 82-79 entering the fourth quarter.
Then it was a bravura bench performance led by Felicio and Holiday with defense, emotion and youthful activity, the desperation of undrafted players along with the energy of youth. Holiday kept thwarting Irving, who was five of 17 for 11 points, while Felicio finished strong on screen/roll action with Brooks. Brooks with nine points in 16 minutes with some shaking, baking and stirring of his own.
“I thought our bench was terrific, obviously,” said Hoiberg. “Two young bigs really went out there and battled and were physical. Big reason we got that win.”
The Bulls looked like they had the win with a 15-0 run for that 97-84 lead with five minutes left in a jumble of Cavs misses and miscues. But then the Bulls went dormant with just a Rose field goal in the next four minutes. The Cavs made four threes, the fourth by James with 57.7 seconds left to bring the Cavs within 104-99.
Could he do it again to them?
Butler missed. James got the ball and went all the way for a layup: 104-101 Bulls with 30.9 seconds left. Uh oh. The Bulls ran down the shot clock and Butler missed a free throw line jumper. Felicio fouled Smith on the rebound. Smith made the first with 8.7 seconds left to get within two, and then intentionally missed the second. It hit high off the back rim and Smith wasn’t blocked out. He went in and got the rebound, passed to Love who passed to an open Matthew Dellavedova for a three to go ahead. It was an air ball. Gasol caught it and Smith knocked it out of bounds. The Bulls inbounded with 2.9 seconds left leading 104-102.
Mike Dunleavy inbounded and had to call timeout. Dunleavy tried again and got it up high to Gasol, who was fouled. He made one of two with 1.6 seconds left. Smith then curled out beyond the three-point line for the potential tie. But Holiday blocked the shot, which fell short as the game ended.
“We knew we had to win this game,” said Felicio. “When the bench comes in to play we try to bring energy. Tonight the bench was amazing.”
As was Felicio, who is turning into an amazing find for the Bulls, perhaps a gem in this lost dark mine of a season.
“Tonight was a good night for me,” said the big man from Brazil. “A couple of shots got me going and after that I continued to play as hard as I could. I was able to help the team win the game. I haven’t been playing in games like that for a couple of years now. Of course, it is different to be playing in crunch time in the NBA. It was a great experience for me. I made a couple of mistakes, but it was good for me to know what I have to do and keep improving.”
The Bulls invited Felicio to their summer league team after general manager Gar Forman had been watching him—sleuth-like—when Felicio said no other NBA team had taken an interest. The 6-10 Felicio, 23, played in Brazil for three years and then moved to California in 2012 to try to catch the eye of the NBA. He tried to gain eligibility to attend the U. of Oregon in 2013, but was ruled ineligible. He returned to Brazil, but Forman traveled to some tournaments to watch him and signed him for summer league.
He’s rarely played until recently, but his defense, court activity and athletic finishes at the basket earned him playing time. Hoiberg had toyed with having him finish games and finally decided to do so Saturday.
“He’s got good hands,” noted Hoiberg. “It looked like he played soccer with the way his feet are. Maybe he was a dancer. He’s got great feet out there, he’s nimble and he’s got excellent hands and can really catch the ball. The big thing is putting pressure on the rim; when he rolls to the front of the rim like that not only is he getting shots, but is opening up shots for the guys on the perimeter.”
Felicio said he was a soccer player like everyone in Brazil, but gave it up for basketball when the coach assigned him to be a goalie.
“I was going to continue playing with my club in Brazil (if the Bulls didn’t sign him),” he said. “I had been trying to come to the NBA for a few years and I am glad I have the chance to come play summer league and glad the Bulls kept me here.”
And so this Bulls team drowning in an ocean of despair and dismay still has some breath left. But that playoff shoreline still appears dim in the distance.