Maybe, just maybe, the Bulls have found something.
“I think we have put together now four games in a row where we competed from the beginning to the end and that’s a very good sign,” said Pau Gasol after Wednesday’s dramatic 102-100 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers. “As long as we continue to do that, I think we’ll always have a chance to win ball games.”
Perhaps not as theatrically as the Bulls did with Jimmy Butler’s tip in with 1.2 seconds left of a Gasol lob pass for the winning basket. Butler then deflected the Pacers’ lob attempt to Paul George to tie the game.
It moved the Bulls a half game ahead of the Pacers at 18-12 in the tightly bunched Eastern Conference. It was the Bulls third win in the last four games and over all top teams following three consecutive losses and the furor over Butler’s comments about more intense coaching.
Plus, the Bulls Wednesday with Derrick Rose sitting out with a tight hamstring and Joakim Noah still out with a shoulder injury, got 29 points off the bench from Aaron Brooks and 16 from Bobby Portis. Gasol added 13 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks and Taj Gibson with saving defensive plays in the overtime had 14 rebounds, six offensive, along with two steals.
“It also demonstrates what can happen when we are fully healthy,” said Butler. “Nobody knows because we are not that way now. But I like the way it will start looking when we get everybody back. Everyone’s confidence is at an all time high. We’ll be a force to reckon with.”
That’s been said before about these Bulls, but they’re making plays and beating tough teams with the Christmas Day win over Oklahoma City and earlier this week over Toronto. The Bulls are 13-5 at home, which means they’ll have more road games ahead, 14 of 20 starting Sunday in Toronto. But Rose’s hamstring problem isn’t considered serious, and Noah has worked harder in practices.
“We keep playing for each other in this locker room and it’s showing,” said Gibson. “There’s been a lot of talk the last couple of days. Everything has been coming at us and we just stayed together as a group. I’m happy we’ve kept the wins coming and kept pushing through.”
The Bulls did end up outrebounding the Pacers 53-46, though they had a tough time on their defensive boards as the Pacers had 16 offensive rebounds and 23 second chance points. But Gibson came back late to thwart that edge, and rookie Portis looks like he’s elbowed his way into the rotation.
Portis had another active, tough game with also seven rebounds, a block and a steal.
“Taj is blue collar,” noted Hoiberg. “We struggled on the glass for a big stretch there, but Taj came back in and helped us get it under control. I don’t know how, but we ended up winning the battle of the boards.
“I have talked all the time about Bobby’s work ethic, his toughness,” added Hoiberg. “He is a kid who is not out there thinking. He reacts and he plays and generally you are much better when you do that. That’s why I wasn’t a very good player; I thought way too much. Bobby just goes out there and he finds a way to produce. He is not backing down. He’ll get the ball. He doesn’t care who is guarding him; he’ll just back him down and try to score on him. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing against the Defensive Player of the Year. He doesn’t know. He’s just out there playing.”
It’s going to present some issues for Hoiberg once Noah returns. Perhaps Nikola Mirotic loses time as he’s slumped and was scoreless Wednesday in 20 minutes. Also, Tony Snell had two points in 27 minutes after a big game against Toronto Monday. But Snell with his defense was a team best plus-14 plus/minus rating. Doug McDermott returned from his knee strain for five points in 20 minutes, but his shooting opportunities were limited with no Rose or Noah to make plays for him.
Kirk Hinrich started as Hoiberg said he wanted Brooks’ offensive spark off the bench, and Brooks fired up his team with 18 points in the first half for a 50-40 Bulls halftime lead.
“Aaron can play,” said Butler. “It’s crazy, that little guy raising up and knocking down threes, getting into the paint with the trees and finishing. I just have to get him to calm down a little bit.”
Butler as well as he struggled for much of the game, three for eight shooting through three quarters with the offense stagnant without Rose. Most possessions were coming with shots in the last five seconds and several times Butler was getting hung up with the ball and handing it to someone with three or four seconds on the shot clock.
Similarly without Noah there was less movement as well. But because Gasol was out there with his excellent shooting ability, the defense had to come out on him instead of laying back in the lane as they often do against Noah. That opened up that winning Butler lob tip at the end.
Despite the frenzied protestations of Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel at the end, Butler made an almost perfect defensive play to stop the last Pacers’ attempt to tie as Butler turned back to the ball like a good football defensive back.
“I knew he was going to get the ball,” said Butler of George. “I didn’t know where. Taj called out ‘lob’ from wherever he was at. I heard Taj’s voice; just trying to make a play on the ball.”
Butler earlier this season denied a George winning attempt in the lane in a Bulls victory as well.
“(Butler) was really aggressive taking the ball to the basket,” said Hoiberg. “Paul George is one of the best wing defenders, if not the best wing defender, in the league. For Jimmy to get aggressive and find a way to get by him and finish over length at the rim….He actually struggled at that (offensive) end a lot of the night after struggling all night (Monday). But Jimmy made big plays and Aaron Brooks had a big offensive night as well.”
The Bulls led 66-62 entering the fourth quarter after blowing a 14-point third quarter lead, seeing the Pacers go ahead and then recovering. But Indiana hit the Bulls with an 11-0 mid fourth quarter run with George making a pair of threes for an 87-80 lead with 2:50 left. Then it was Butler with several big time plays, including a three that bounced up and back in to tie the game at 89 with 34.9 seconds left and a ferocious crossover on George and layup with 25.9 seconds left to again tie the game after a Monta Ellis driving score. Ellis missed a long three at the end of regulation with the score tied at 91.
The Bulls took a fast 98-91 lead in overtime with a key Gibson tip in. But the Pacers tied it at 100 with 3.7 seconds left with an Ellis three on yet another offensive rebound. The Bulls didn’t foul with the three-point lead after Brooks lost the ball with 25.9 seconds left. But that was too much time, and by the time the clock ran down the Pacers were in shooting situations where the Bulls were facing a potential four-point play with a foul.
The Bulls couldn’t get the defensive rebound on the first Ellis corner three miss, and the game was tied before Gasol and Butler’s fabulous winning connection.
“That’s just Pau being a smart player, a great player,” said Butler. “He could have shot it, but he put it up at the rim. Got my hand on it and put it into the basket. That basket should be credited to him because Paul George was guarding me so tough.
“Even though I wasn’t making shots earlier, my teammates told me to continually stay aggressive, try to put the ball in the basket, get to the line; eventually it turned around for me,” said Butler. “I had to make a play. The ball went in at the right time.”