Bulls hold off scrappy Blazers for 93-88 win

Remember those days for the Bulls when the fourth quarters were like a slog through a swamp with players standing around on offense, barely getting off shots to beat the clock while pressuring and switching and closing and finally creeping above 90 points to win a game?

Oh right, Tuesday.

Because that’s when the Bulls with Derrick Rose back in the lineup after missing two games with a sprained ankle labored through a one for 16 fourth quarter shooting stretch at one point. The Bulls saw a 15-point fourth quarter lead disappear. There was a flagrant foul on the Portland Trailblazers’ Mason Plumlee and a technical foul on Jimmy Butler. And in the end there was Joakim Noah taking on a defensive switch and thwarting C.J. McCollum’s three-point attempt to tie the game as the Bulls escaped with a 93-88 victory.

“It’s a game of runs and you have people who can really score the ball,” noted Butler, who led the Bulls with 22 points and made four clutch free throws in the last 15.9 seconds to hold off Portland. “You go in a drought for a little bit and nobody can put the ball in the basket. But our defense made up for it and in the end we made free throws and pulled out the win. As long as we’re guarding that covers up a lot of things on the offense end; I feel we did that well.”

The Bulls did that well in holding Portland to 35.2 percent shooting and 27.3 percent on threes. Trailblazers star guard Damian Lillard led with 19 points, but he shot four of 22 against strong defense from Rose. Lillard also had 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“They’re a good defensive team and they close out hard on the perimeter,” said Lillard. “I think guys felt like because they were closing out hard they might be able to get by them. So a few times we passed up open shots on the perimeter. We have to give credit to what they did for making us do it.”

The Bulls got 17 points, six assists and a game high plus/minus from Rose and 12 points and 14 rebounds and the Bulls only two field goals in the last 10 minutes from Pau Gasol. His rolling right drive with 1:45 left for an 87-82 lead was the crucial late field goal that gave the Bulls just enough margin to hold on. Though they also needed a free throw miss from Lillard with 20.7 seconds left to probably avoid overtime.

The Bulls moved to an impressive 9-4 and 2-1 in this Western Conference portion of the road trip. The Bulls close the trip in Indiana Friday.

But the Bulls are doing it, instead, with a familiar formula of defense first, mostly sluggish offense and erratic shooting. They’ve fallen to 18th in the league in scoring and 21st in shooting. But they’re second in field goal defense and it’s carried them to five wins in their last six games. They haven’t given up 100 points in any of the wins. And in the loss, Golden State scored eight points below its season average and had just 94 points, 20 below its season average, with fewer than two minutes remaining in the game.

“We got stops when we needed them the most, and that’s what you have to do when your offense isn’t clicking,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We missed some good ones and when that ball got on the side of the floor it didn’t get side to side nearly enough. So again, we’ve just got to keep working, getting better down the stretch.”

Well, it is a win.

And Rose walked out of the arena. The Rose City hasn’t been sweet for Rose.

“I’m just happy I got off the court,” Rose said with a laugh as it was his first game in Portland since his torn meniscus Nov. 22, 2013. “I think I played an all right game and we won the game. So that’s the only thing that matters. We went up 10 numerous times; we’ve got to learn how to close teams out. It’s been from the beginning of the year. We’ve still got to figure out the plan to that. It’s going to take us a little more time. We’re still trying to figure out the plan to that.”

But they only count the wins in the standings and not the method. So the Bulls can continue to plod along and develop. It’s working for now.

The up tempo offense with speed and movement that Hoiberg has talked about has been nowhere to be found. The Bulls get into that weave with the dribble handoffs. But too often they fall back to isolations or holding the ball. The Trailblazers playing mostly a small lineup in their remake after losing LaMarcus Aldridge were active defensively. But again the Bulls mostly failed to take advantage of their size mismatches inside with Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson combining for 28 shots while Butler and Rose combined for 33. Plus, the Trailblazers proved quicker to the ball with 16 offensive rebounds to six for the Bulls and a 55-44 rebounding advantage.

After a good start with five of eight three pointers in the first quarter, the Bulls were two of 10 the rest of the game. Tony Snell had a promising start with five points in the first 75 seconds as the Bulls opened 10-0. Snell was then scoreless the rest of the game.

It might be time to take a longer look at Doug McDermott with the offensive droughts. McDermott defended his position well enough. And though McDermott was just two of six shooting in 25 minutes, the defense had to chase him. The Trailblazers were basically giving Snell open threes. Nikola Mirotic had 13 points and eight rebounds and was three of four on threes, primarily in catch and shoot situations when he was set. Mirotic fought on the boards, but on the move offensively the Trailblazers were anticipating his pump fakes and turning them into forced misses.

With McDermott and Mirotic spotted on the wings or in the corners for threes, the Bulls could have threatening offensive options. They’d need to get Rose more in the middle of the floor to drive and kick as well as Butler. But without their perimeter threats in place, the Bulls still can’t get the spacing they need to open those driving lanes envisioned for Rose and Butler.

Noah did finally show some aggression offensively and even made a 20 footer early in the second quarter, his first of the season. Noah had seven points and six rebounds and that brilliant closing defensive stand when he didn’t go for the fake and what could have been free throws to tie the game.

“It was great,” Hoiberg said of Noah’s neo-offense. “His teammates were pumping him up to shoot that; he puts a lot of time and effort into his game and I thought he and Taj (with 10 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes) were terrific out there for us, especially in that first half. Those guys were playing off each other; both got a couple of post touches and scored it in there. Pau obviously hit a huge shot for us down the stretch. I was really pleased with how all four of our bigs played tonight. (And then) we tried to get our best five defenders out there and play out the (last) possession.”

But it also was an emotional game for more than Rose as Plumlee knocked over Butler setting a screen with 4:17 left and Portland within 80-79 after a McCollum three. Butler didn’t appreciate the body block and kicked out and tripped Plumlee. They both got up and went forehead to forehead like the Nene/Butler head butt of the 2014 playoffs. The officials assessed Plumlee a flagrant foul and Butler a technical.

“Got into football for a second there,” said Butler in laughing off the incident. “It’s all good. Almost had to let the Fort Greene projects (Gibson’s old neighborhood) out of me. Basketball, emotions; that’s part of the game. He cost me $2,500. I’m not happy about that. I’ll ask him to pay me back.”

The technical foul tied the game and then Butler made both free throws for an 82-80 lead as the Bulls were in that one of 16 stretch for most of the last 10 minutes. But the Trailblazers missed their next six shots before Plumlee ran full court to dunk the ball after a Rose driving miss.

“A couple of transition defenses where we didn’t get back the way we should have,” noted Gasol. “We gave up a three and then they got a layup and a dunk from Plumlee. Just things that shouldn’t happen, but you try to make up for them.”

That dunk brought the Trailblazers, who never led in the game, within 87-85 with 1:14 left. Butler then missed a fading jump shot, but Lillard lost the ball driving. Gasol then got blocked on a drive in a 22 percent Bulls shooting fourth quarter and Lillard ran it back and was fouled. His second free throw with 20.7 seconds left rimmed out, leaving the Bulls ahead 87-86.

That forced the Trailblazers to foul and Butler made his four before Noah’s defensive stand. But had Lillard made that second free throw, the Bulls likely would have held for a last shot and teams don’t get off many good shots holding for that last one to deny the other team any time on the clock.

“We got stops, we knocked down our free throws and we got defensive rebounds, which is a key factor to the game,” said Gasol.

The Bulls had the decided talent edge with the return of Rose and Portland in rebuilding. It showed with a 10-0 and 13-2 Bulls start. Rose’s defense against Lillard also was aggressive in Rose’s return.

“I felt all right,” Said Rose. “There were some plays where I didn’t have any lift on my shot when driving the ball, but that will come with the more I play and the stronger I get. Anybody I play against I try to just give them a tough time. Let them know that it’s going to be a long night and try to contest all of their shots. He’s (Lillard) a great, great player. So its hard guarding shooters like him.”

Rose also made his first three-point attempt and continued shooting that mid range bank shot well. Noah came in and surprised with a pair of rolling hook shots going in after being scoreless the last two games and the Bulls led 29-22 after one quarter.

The Bulls went ahead 43-32 midway through the second quarter after a wonderful Rose lookaway pass on a fast break for a score. But as they have often this done season, they fell into isolation and slow, one-on-one play with a lead that soon disappeared. A Butler 55 footer at the halftime buzzer enabled the Bulls to have a 48-39 halftime lead.

Again the Bulls moved ahead after halftime with a 69-56 lead as the Bulls’ defense was good. They were excellent running the Trailblazers off the three-point line and also clogging the lane. The Bulls, however, continued to box out poorly, another bad habit in the early season, and again were losing the second shot battle. But they still led 71-63 after three following a nice Butler strip and run out for a score, finishing a lob on a pass from Mirotic and a McDermott runner in traffic.

But after taking that 78-65 lead early in the fourth quarter on a pair of Rose baskets around a Kirk Hinrich three-point play, the Bulls went frigid again almost until it was too late. The Trailblazers had beaten the Bulls seven straight times in Portland.

“We do a lot of help defense in practice, so it doesn’t surprise us when we stop teams late,” said Rose. “It’s just offensively we have to figure out what we’re going to do. We’ve got a winning record, so I can’t complain about anything. We won a close game, held them off and the only thing I’m worried about is the win.”