Bulls get back on track with 83-80 win against Clippers

I know what it is; don’t tell me. Rhymes with violin. C’mon, no sad songs again. When you are smiling and the other guy is making excuses, when the questions are friendlier, the answers easier and the ride home smoother. Now what is that?

A win; that’s it. The Bulls almost forgot.

“We were in a bad situation before tonight’s game,” conceded Pau Gasol, whose 24 points Thursday led the Bulls to the narrow, relief provoking 83-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “We’ve got to start doing things differently, picking it up somehow. We have an opportunity here to do something special. I would hate if we would throw it away ourselves. It was a must win; otherwise we would be talking four in a row in the loss column and not a good place to be.”

But the Bulls at least for a few hours as Chris Paul’s three at the buzzer to tie missed were able to relax and avoid the questions, concerns and potential recriminations that were bubbling from a losing streak and multiple blown leads. And retreat to their happy place.

The Bulls, this time with a 16-point third quarter lead at the same time Clippers’ star Blake Griffin was being ejected for a flagrant foul on Taj Gibson, saw the Clippers tie the game at 66 with 7:29 left in a nightmarish recurring scenario.

“Little tentative, stagnant in the fourth,” said Gasol, though the Clippers made an uncanny eight three pointers in the fourth quarter. “We have to figure out what to run better, make sure we hit the shots, get good looks and score.”

This time the Bulls would to move to 12-8, an adequate 49-win pace as the Bulls reached a quarter of the season. The Clippers with Griffin getting 18 points and 11 rebounds before being ejected fell to 13-10.

Jimmy Butler made a pull up jumper for a 68-66 lead with 6:35 left and then hustled back to draw an offensive foul. Taj Gibson, injecting passion and energy now starting, grabbed an Aaron Brooks miss and put it back for a 70-66 Bulls lead with 5:54 left. Derrick Rose, whom coach Fred Hoiberg took out early during a poor first half, made a three among his nine fourth quarter points to lead the team down the stretch.

“I’m not worried about my game,” said Rose, who had 11 points on five of 11 shooting and did a good job on Paul, who was five of 16 with just five assists. “It’s going to come. I’m just worried about how we close games; we were up big. We have to make sure we close teams out and rebound.”

The Clippers were still making these unlikely threes, Paul with a desperation 32 footer with the shot clock about to expire to bring the Clippers within 78-75 with 2:52 remaining.

Who are those guys?

But Brooks, who had DNP-CDs the last three games, drew a foul on a three-pointer and made all three for 10 big points off the bench and some speed in the offense. He also drew an offensive foul on Luc Mbah a Moute with 1:24 left and a Rose driving bank shot with 45.4 seconds left proved just enough along with Paul’s buzzer miss. After a week of lost leads and fourth quarter defensive meltdowns, it seemed as much relief as any unrestrained celebration.

“In situations like what happened against Phoenix (Monday blowing a 16-point fourth quarter lead to a team closing a long road trip) you address it, talk about it and try to do a better job next time,” said Hoiberg. “Our guys found a way, got a couple of stops, got a basket after the timeout and strung a few together to get that lead up to seven (76-69 with 4:31 left). Then they were hitting tough shots. Chris Paul hit the 35 footer at the buzzer, but our guys kept playing and found the matchup we wanted and made plays.

“We had to get this one,” admitted Hoiberg. “It was a huge game for us after losing three in a row, a couple on our home floor. We had to find a way to win the game. Wasn’t pretty (34.1 percent Clippers’ shooting). It was kind of a drag out brawl, but we found a way to get the win.”

That’s probably as much as anyone can say after again nearly losing with a big lead, the offense sticky with Butler shooting four of 14 for 14 points though eight assists, and the bench being outscored by a weak Clippers’ bench 27-20. The Bulls got on the boards with Joakim Noah grabbing 13 rebounds and Nikola Mirotic 11, but the failure to protect the defensive boards was again a glaring problem as the Clippers had a discouraging 18-2 edge in second chance points with 15 offensive rebounds. The Bulls still lead the league in rebounding at 48.4 per game. But their once dominant rebounding edge is gone as they are 16th in rebounding differential. They are the worst team in the NBA at 30th in opposing team rebounds. It’s a long way from the physical dominance on the boards so familiar in recent years.

“We have to be more physical and tonight I think we did a good job of gang rebounding and hitting people,” said Gasol. “You have to do the little things, understand what it takes to win when you are not making shots, when things get stagnant, tentative in the fourth. So you have to make sure you do the little things and make sure you don’t give the opponent second opportunities and hit people and we have not done that very well.”

It helped giving Gibson more playing time as he had 12 points and eight rebounds and Mirotic obviously was told to get on the defensive boards as he did with those 11 in just over 14 minutes. Hoiberg obviously did plenty of talking after the recent losses as Rose said Hoiberg talked to him about accelerating the pace. Rose said Hoiberg suggested getting the ball across midcourt within three seconds. The problem the Bulls have is teammates often are walking up behind Rose.

“I feel I’ve been pushing,” said Rose. “I feel I’ve been playing a pretty up tempo pace; just got to get everybody to run with me.”

Again, it’s either those old habits or this is who these guys are. Because the ball rarely swings around the court. Even when the Bulls are up court faster—and the Bulls rank seventh in the NBA in pace and number of possessions—they routinely take a shot from the first pass or a dribble and shoot after that pass rather than moving the ball. Perhaps no one believes it will come back. Or they don’t see the movement. And they mostly have played the last several years running specific plays that called for a shot after a screen or directly out of a post move.

Still, it not only was a comforting win, but over a Clippers team that many have projected as a contender. Though with Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick in the starting lineup that seems problematic.

“We got tired of losing the way we were losing and eventually you have to do what you have to do, especially at home,” said Butler. “We finally picked it up a notch and knew what it took to win and did it.”

Though the Clippers took an early 19-11 lead on Griffin’s perimeter shooting, the Bulls got a big first quarter with 14 points and one of his three three pointers from Gasol. Gasol had been one of nine on threes entering the game. His late quarter run enabled the Bulls to get within 24-23 after one quarter.

It also was a fired up Gasol who screamed at Tony Snell for a first quarter failure to box out.

“Pau was passionate about getting this one tonight,” said Rose “You saw how hungry he was tonight; we had to give him the ball.”

“I put myself there sometimes hoping my teammates were looking for me and I hit some threes finally because this season I haven’t made them,” said Gasol. “I was not making my threes in the warm up, but all it matters is they go in during the game. It’s not that we’ll see me shooting three threes per game.”

The Bulls second group jumped on the usually erratic Clippers bench for a 14-0 start to the second quarter for a 37-24 lead. Rose was continuing to have a tough go in a scoreless first half with a pair of turnovers, and Hoiberg went with Kirk Hinrich late instead of Rose’s usual rotation. Though Hoiberg does change rotations like underwear. At least we hope so with the latter.

“The second group was rolling,” said Rose, who dismissed several queries about his eye sight though there apparently remains some blurring from the orbital fracture. “I don’t question anything he (Hoiberg) does.”

But in perhaps a significant moment, Rose came out with the Bulls leading 44-35 after halftime without his facial mask for the first time this season. He minimized the significance, saying the trainers told him three days ago it would be safe to go without it, that he really forgot to put it on and just left it off and he might even go back to it. But Rose scored immediately and was five of eight shooting without the mask.

The Bulls started another quarter fast for a change, going ahead 57-41 behind Gasol and Gibson in the third quarter. That’s when Griffin smashed Gibson across the face with Gibson going up with an offensive rebound. On review, the officials ruled a flagrant 2, which is an ejection. Griffin did seem to apologize to Gibson immediately.

“He got me up in the air on a pump fake,” said Griffin. “I tried to swat the ball. Obviously, I missed. I wasn’t trying to hit him in the face. There was no intent to hit him, only the ball.”

Gibson made the two free throws for a 59-43. But the ejection seemed to motivate the Clippers, who got a pair of lob dunks running out from DeAndre Jordan. It was 64-54 Bulls after three. And then the Clippers with mostly reserves hit four straight threes while the Bulls were missing nine straight shots. It was tied with 7:29 left and looking like another post game post mortem.

Did this team have a pulse?

“Same thing happened in Boston and we lost the game,” noted Gasol. “Same thing happened against Phoenix and we lost the game; similar thing happened tonight, we won the game. It’s a gamble. Chris Paul makes the shot, go to overtime and there we are playing for our life. Mentally when critical times come and you are in the fourth quarter you have to have the mindset of building the lead. When you have the lead you build, you push, you get sharper.”

Hoiberg did make a nice adjustment to pair Brooks with Rose more in the backcourt. Moving Butler to small forward, which forced him up court more quickly. And Rose went off the ball with Brooks accelerating from the backcourt as well.

This time even as Paul came back and made two threes in the fourth, Rose’s scoring, a Gasol three and three clutch free throws from Brooks proved just enough.

Though barely as Paul got the ball with 6.4 seconds left for the tie. Hoiberg said to foul with the three-point lead, but avoid the three-point foul. Rose did. Paul’s shot hit back rim.

“They told me to foul,” said Rose. “He was looking to get fouled and I’m used to seeing games he played in where he gets that call if you reach or if you try to foul him in the backcourt he’ll launch it up. I was just trying to avoid fouling him. As long as we can go to sleep and not worry about another damned loss, I’m good. Still early; have a lot of room to improve. Just have to enjoy the game.”