It’s taken almost two years, but the nickname finally is starting to fit. Doug McDermott is proudly, efficiently and vitally getting McBuckets for the Bulls in his best stretch as a pro.
And it perhaps is saving the Bulls season.
McDermott Thursday scored 25 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls had allowed a 24-point lead erode to five, and the Bulls went on to defeat the Brooklyn Nets 118-102.
The win gave the Bulls sole possession of eighth place—no parades for that—for a day with a 34-33 record. It wasn’t the most inspiring of wins as not only did the Bulls lose the big lead and a chance for a dominating win, it came against a decimated Nets team that had traded off and given away most of their top players. So it’s not like the Cavaliers are sweating quite yet. And not like many around the Bulls are, either, as the Bulls are just 1.5 games ahead of 10th place and charging Washington. Everything but seventh seems out of reach with four teams essentially tied from third through sixth and 4.5 games ahead of the Bulls with 15 games left. The Bulls are 1.5 games behind seventh place Indiana.
“A win’s a win, and we won,” said Jimmy Butler, stopping a reporter who wanted to question the aesthetics of the victory.
Butler had a nice bounce back game with 22 points and seven assists, getting back to the basket with eight of eight free throws. Derrick Rose had a few layups roll off early even as the Bulls rushed to a 24-14 first quarter lead. He finished with 12 points and five assists with one turnover. The Bulls committed just nine.
Though the story was the bench and the kids, though E’Twaun Moore sustained a hamstring injury. There is no update yet.
Bobby Portis had 12 points and 14 rebounds, Cristiano Felicio had a career high 10 rebounds, Aaron Brooks had 12 points on five of seven shooting in 16 minutes and the Bulls reserves had 60 points to 58 for the starters.
“I talked to Cris right before game,” said Taj Gibson. “I know he had a rough game last game. I told him to take it serious. Every game is a chance to get better; every game is a chance to show people why you are here, why you have a Bulls jersey. I’m proud of the way he played tonight.
“Bobby, I always praise him because he’s the future,” Gibson added. “I like how Bobby comes prepared and goes out there and proves he should have been an early round (draft) pick. He plays with that chip on his shoulder. They play the right way and want to help the team win.
“It was a big win,” said Gibson. “Indiana lost tonight, Detroit lost last night, but then you have Washington on our heels. Every game is important, especially during this four-game home stand. Tonight was real important. We still have three more tough ones; tonight was a start to get some things going.”
Yes, McDermott supplied the scoring as he’s averaging 24.7 points the last three games, shooting 62 percent overall and 12 of 19 for 63 percent on threes.
“Doug is playing with the utmost confidence in the world right now,” said Gibson. “I’m happy for him because when he lets the game come to him, when he attacks the game he is amazing. I tell him, ‘Nobody can really stop you, you can do it all.’ It’s all about believing in yourself and he’s believing in himself and he puts the work in and we are extremely proud of him. Our young guys are coming around. It takes time, but they are coming around. We understand with injuries things get put in people’s laps. I tell them to take advantage of these things happening and keep getting better every day.”
Perhaps McDermott’s scoring will be the X-factor for this inconsistent Bulls team. Maybe it will be Butler and Rose with a healthy closing kick. Possibly some unexpected help from some of the young guys. But if there is an anchor with this Bulls team coming down the stretch, it is becoming Gibson, who wasn’t supposed to play. It was no coincidence with Gibson back McDermott could exploit the defense with his shooting, Gibson setting so many of the screens to get McDermott open for what is becoming Stephen Curry-esque longer and longer three-point attempts.
Gibson missed the second half in Washington Wednesday with a hamstring strain. Coach Fred Hoiberg was dubious about his ability to play Thursday. But Gibson was having none of it, and as so many fall and falter around him, he has been the lighthouse in the fog that delivers direction and hope.
“Tough,” Gibson said when asked about playing through the discomfort. “You think about it, but you think about your teammates, really. I’m an unselfish player and I am trying to set a good example for the young guys and go out there and play for each other, especially now with the playoff push. It’s real important now helping each other. So I don’t want them to see any doubt. I told them whatever it takes to win. I told Fred whatever it takes to win I’ll go out and play as hard as I can and when I need a blow just get me. I’m excited we were able to get a win.”
It didn’t come as easy as it should have against a 19-49 Nets team. Not that they are a walkover even with a roster well known around the D-league. They still have veterans like Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, but it was the Bulls sprinting early into an 11-0 close to the first quarter that led to a 47-23 lead with about four minutes left in the first half. McDermott was dropping threes like exploding water balloons soaking the Nets’ hopes. Mike Dunleavy threw that Pau Gasol lob to Butler for a dunk, Portis got a put back and did some weight lifter posing. A bit over the top when you’re averaging five points, but OK for now. Brooks invented some more of those angled layup drives.
But those bad old habits of indifference appeared again.
This time it was with a lethargic start to the second half, some perfunctory attempts at rebounding that led to three Nets offensive rebounds for scores. Gibson tried to rouse the troops with a put back of his own miss, but the Nets were going now and various guys from various leagues and perhaps an Irish law firm named Bogdanovic, Karasev, Kilpatrick and McCullough began feeling confident. The Nets hit the Bulls with a 19-6 run scoring in nine straight possessions and now it was a contested fourth quarter with the Bulls leading 79-74.
The Bulls’ transition defense again resembled driving along an interstate and stopping at the scenic view sign. The Bulls stood around admiring the Nets’ banging in corner threes. To paraphrase the line in the movie, life around the Bulls is like a box out, you never know what you’ll get when someone is supposed to do that. Again, it was little.
“We knew we win the quarter, we win the game, that was the talk in the huddle,” said Butler.
The Bulls wore green for St. Patrick’s Day; the Nets began, finally, to look a little sick.
The Bulls did so in an unusual way with a season high 39 points in the fourth, highlighted my McDermott’s shooting and floaters, a wonderful Rose left handed lookaway pass for a Portis dunk, Felicio with a clutch jumper in the middle and Rose with a finalizing three.
“We did our job,” said Butler. “We’re not supposed to give up that many points. In the end we won the game.”
And get to play on.
“We got things a little interesting there for a little bit. We finished strong, so it was good to see,” said McDermott. “I’m getting good looks, my body feels great, I feel healthy, confident. My teammates have confidence in me, the coaches. I’m having a lot more fun out there. Just got to keep building on it. We needed it big time. We came off a tough loss in DC. They out worked us. We got off to a good start tonight, had a big lead, but we let them back in. In the end, we were able to finish them off. We definitely need a day of rest before the Jazz come into town."
That’s Saturday, and while the Jazz is technically a team with a losing record—the Bulls are two games from one–it is a desperate team playing hard to get the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Give up a big lead and you’re maybe not finding it easy to pull away again.
Though the Bulls will have the spirit of Taj.
Many of my favorite times around the Bulls this season have been the discourses of Taj.
Perhaps not quite like Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel in the 1970 Finals, but there was Gibson, surprisingly, back in the starting lineup Thursday.
<o<“If you are injured you have to sit down. It’s not about whether you can play or not,” Gibson explained. “You sit out. But if you can do something, anything, like go out there and play a little defense, rebound. Just something to try and help the team win. Everybody deals with pain differently. I’m accustomed to it. I played with torn ligaments in my foot last year. So I understand pain. I just wanted to be out there and play for my guys. I understand we got a lot of people down; a lot of people are counting us out. I wanted to go out there and play whatever minutes I could and give the guys, the coach whatever I got. We got a W tonight. Whatever it takes.”
So now the Tao of Taj. Whatever it takes.