Bulls finish strong to beat Kings 109-102

The Bulls Monday were mostly awful against the Sacramento Kings.

Which was actually the good news. Other than, of course, the Bulls’ 109-102 victory, their third straight.

“We played well for about six minutes tonight,” agreed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Thankfully, it was the last six minutes of the game.”

That was a wonderful stretch, a 19-7 close to the game with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler making big play after big play, Rose hitting three of five shots in yet another excellent shooting game, including consecutive jump shots with the Bulls trailing 95-94 with five minutes left. There was Butler with a reverse driving score with the Bulls trailing by five with 6:01 left, Butler with a power tip in of Rose and Gasol misses for a 102-97 lead with 1:55 left. Then Butler drove and passed to Mike Dunleavy for a backbreaking three after a Taj Gibson steal. And then Gibson and Pau Gasol closed the scoring with jumpers on Rose passes after Rose got the defensive rebounds on the previous Sacramento misses.

“We were down 95-90 with 6:05 left and got all the starters back in there,” noted Hoiberg “We finally got some urgency and got some stops and made plays on the other end. We were kind of stuck in mud tonight. I told the guys that can’t happen. It’s got to be your last sub par game of the year and we have to come out with way more urgency than we did tonight.”

As much as it seems obviously necessary, the passion and urgency wasn’t there for most of the game even as the Bulls built up a 12-point third quarter lead against a highly dysfunctional Sacramento team, perhaps the most indifferent in the league. And playing the second of a back to back in the fifth game of a six-game road trip and looking on several occasions like they wanted to be anywhere else.

But until the close, the Bulls got an unusually lackluster game from Butler, who seemed lethargic on offense even as Hoiberg said he was fine. Butler did have a season high five steals, but 11 points on three of 11 shooting. Rose and Gibson led with 18 points each. Gasol was returning from knee swelling and limited to 24 minutes. He had 14 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks trying to fight off DeMarcus Cousins, who had 19 points and 18 rebounds with eight turnovers as the Kings committed 20 that the Bulls used for 21 points, season highs for the Bulls. But the Bulls were dominated on the boards 50-40 and had several backward sequences from the reserves even as Doug McDermott continued his hot shooting with 16 points and four of seven threes.

“That’s on our bench,” agreed McDermott. “They went on a big run and we can’t allow them to get going in transition. Then he put the starters back in and they closed it out for us. We’ve go to do a better job, but overall it’s a great team win.”

Not that the starters were so great throughout.

They were mostly good in the first half as the Bulls took a 30-26 lead after one quarter and then 59-51 at halftime . That came with an 11-5 close to the half that included perhaps the highlight ball movement play of the season. Dunleavy threw diagonally into the right corner to Nikola Mirotic, who threw back to Dunleavy on the far left wing while almost falling out of bounds. Dunleavy, breaking out of a one of 11 slump shooting threes coming in with three of six fired inside to Butler cutting to the basket. He laid it off to Gibson for a dunk. Butler then on the next possession took the ball from Cousins and went all the way for a score and the eight–point halftime lead.

“I’d like to see us play at that level for 48 minutes,” Gasol said about the close. “Not mess around with teams that can hit three, four shots and get back in the game and put you down five with six minutes left in the game. We have to do better. We are going to have a lot of youth and inexperience on the floor for long periods of time and have to understand that and our young players have to understand that and compete every single second.”

The starters came out to start the second half and built the lead to 69-57, though the Kings looked disappointed they weren’t down 30 and could sit. The Bulls went six of seven possessions without scoring after a Rose jumper to start the half with the Kings firing long jumpers all over. Kings coach George Karl sat impassively as Cousins strolled around on defense. Four of the Kings’ first five shots of the half were threes, including one by Rajon Rondo in what screamed to get us out of here. But Butler began walking the ball up court, hanging onto it until 10 or 12 seconds were left on the clock in three possessions. The Bulls began standing around, and then when Hoiberg made the substitutions during the quarter the Kings came alive. Going into the fourth quarter the Bulls suddenly led just 82-81 as the Kings had scores in six straight possessions. Though the Bulls did get some aggressive play from Justin Holiday with nine points in 15 minutes.

“When we have a team down like this we have to make sure we keep them down,” said Rose. “We should have ended it in the first half. I was thinking first quarter; when we have our foot on the neck we have to keep it on them.”

This is not this Bulls team, as we’ve seen all season, though Hoiberg said the close was encouraging.

“Early in the year, I am not sure we win this game,” said Hoiberg. “We were down by five and adversity hit us in a big way. But the guys kept their heads up in the huddle and went out there and played the most important part of the game. But it’s got to be for a longer stretch if we want to have a chance. All the teams we’re competing against (for the playoffs) won tonight. We’re right where we were. We have to continue to go out and battle and hopefully play more consistently the next game. The big thing was the overall urgency we showed down the stretch whereas before if we had a lead and it got cut it would continue to spiral the wrong direction and tonight the guys showed some toughness.”

This would have been a disastrous loss for the Bulls’ playoff hopes, and not only because the Pacers, Pistons and Wizards all won. Those four teams are separated by two games playing for seventh and eighth in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are tied with Detroit for eighth, though the Pistons currently hold the tiebreaker with one game left between the teams. The Bulls are 1-2 against Detroit with both losses in overtime, one in four overtimes. It makes that last game a must-win for the Bulls.

Though there are plenty they need to win before then with the bottom teams in the East all playing well. It doesn’t look like anyone is backing into a playoff spot.

“We’re taking care of business the last few games,” said Dunleavy. “Our goal was to get four here on this home stand. We’ve got three. Tonight was probably the second time all year we had our normal starting lineup out there. It was good to see. We didn’t play great, but down the stretch we did. That group is pretty good. Hopefully, if we can get healthy and stay healthy that’s the key, round into form and give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs.

“There’s a sense of confidence and comfort level with that group,” Dunleavy added. “We’ve played together quite a bit. Not so much this year, but we know what’s going on. More veteran guys and we have a good feel for each other. Unfortunately, we’ve haven’t had much chance to get out there together. But when we are I like our chances.”

They saved it against the Kings after the reserves were faltering badly to open the fourth and the Kings sensed they could steal one.

The Kings’ reserve group was attacking and gained that 95-90 lead with just over six minutes left.

Rose kept the Bulls within five blowing in for a driving layup, and then taking over after Butler’s tough reverse score. Gasol set a pair of good screens and Cousins didn’t much care to come out, leaving Rose to hit the crucial jumpers at each elbow. Those shots got the Bulls back the lead they wouldn’t lose again with Cousins, meanwhile, contributing two turnovers, Darren Collison missing a 30 footer and Rudy Gay dribbling around awhile and then firing off a 20 footer. The Bulls were focused now, Gasol finishing off the crucial 10-0 run with a pair of free throws and then Butler with the tough follow score and pass for the Dunleavy wing three.

“I thought Derrick was terrific down the stretch,” said Hoiberg. “He took good shots. I thought we set a couple of good screens for him after getting a little movement and he stepped up and in a big way. A lot of it was Derrick making plays for us, but good recognition by our guys to find the mismatch. Pau was great. I thought he guarded Cousins about as well as anyone, and he still had (about) 20 and 20. I thought Pau really battled him down there, made it tough. Mike hit a huge three; I thought Taj was really good all night.”

And the Bulls won a game they often haven’t and didn’t look like they would. It shows growth, if not complete optimism.

“We’ve had some ups and downs,” said Rose, “but we are finding ways to win games.”