When the Bulls showed up Tuesday in Indianapolis, it seemed like a funeral and they’d be in a casket. The four consecutive losses dropped them below .500, they’d suffered humiliating blowout losses to non contending teams, and the obituary was being written.
And then they sat up and declared, “We ain’t dead yet!”
That was with Jimmy Butler’s 10 footer from the right elbow with 3.7 seconds left for the game winner in a 98-96 victory over the Indiana Pacers after surviving a C.J. Miles three at the buzzer.
It’s not like the Bulls’ season has been revived. Just still alive.
They’re two games behind the eighth place Pacers, but the victory gave the Bulls, 37-37, the season tiebreaker with a 3-1 margin. The Bulls also currently hold the division tiebreaker on seventh place Detroit, whom the Bulls host Saturday. So a season and a playoff spot still, at least, has a heartbeat.
“We knew we had to win this one,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “It’s already an uphill battle, but it would be a mountain to climb if we didn’t get this one. It was a huge win for us. Guys stepped up big and made the right plays down the stretch, defended well the last couple of possessions and hopefully we can build on this and play well Thursday (in Houston).”
The Bulls were led by Nikola Mirotic with 28 points and 10 rebounds, making seven of 13 threes and scoring 15 points in the second quarter in a game that jerked back and forth tug-o-war style throughout with 14 lead changes and 12 ties. The Pacers are 39-35 and were led by Paul George’s 20 points.
Butler added 14 points. Pau Gasol had 10 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and seven turnovers. Derrick Rose had eight points on four of 15 shooting with an elbow injury that left him unable to use his left hand. Taj Gibson was scoreless and had to leave at halftime with a rib contusion. E’Twaun Moore returned from his strained hamstring, and Hoiberg said Butler’s back has also been giving him problems.
“I’m always confident,” Butler said about taking that last shot despite shooting 20 percent on threes and 39 percent overall since the All-Star break. “I just need my body to stay where I can compete and help my team. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get into these playoffs; my teammates know that, my coaches know that. I hope everybody knows that.
“Excited to get a win,” Butler added. “I know everyone plays hard, gives all they got every night. When you come up short, it hurts. It was big to get a win here; guys are nicked up. To pull out a win like this on the road against a playoff team is big for us.
“Tired,” Butler responded when asked about being subdued after the game winner. “We don’t get to do what you all (media) do and hold microphones and ask questions; guys are tired.”
Perhaps it’s not what anyone wants to hear in this stretch run of the season. But it is the best answer to the supposed big mystery about what is wrong with these Bulls. Not talented enough? Somewhat. Since the All-Star break, they don’t have anyone playing well enough to make an All-Star team. But it’s more likely the accumulation of a season—more like five seasons—of unrelenting injuries, dashed hopes, failed expectations, incessant and unremitting questioning, disappointment, demands and dirges played around them.
“We know we try to get in the playoffs every year,” said Rose. “We are going to try our hardest to keep it going. This year has been up and down. Who knows? In the playoffs, maybe we can get things rolling by coming together. But it’s going to take us getting there to do it.”
And they are trying despite the supposed conventional wisdom and latest narrative. Simple: Losing like that must mean they don’t care, tuned out the coach, dislike one another. Simple answers are so much more comfortable than complex reality.
But consider how the Bulls got to that Butler shot.
It was a gruesome fourth quarter between two desperate and laboring teams. The Bulls led 28-27 after one quarter and 60-58 at halftime. The Pacers tied it at 84 going into the fourth quarter when the Bulls pushed ahead by seven and then fell behind by three with 2:19 left when Mirotic made his seventh three to tie the game at 96.
“We are playing with a different mentality after our (team) meeting a couple of days ago,” said Mirotic of the brainstorming after the stinging loss in Orlando. “We changed a little bit of our mentality. I thought even with the loss to Atlanta, we played better than we have been, we competed. Today we did a better job on defense. This is the way we need to play the rest of the season. I am feeling much better with shooting the three. I feel my game will come, but I need more games like this because I know my teammates need me. When I have some games like this most of the time we won.”
There was still a long way to go and plenty of missed opportunities for both teams. Mirotic missed an open three and Rose missed on a tough angle. But the Pacers George committed a turnover and then Gasol blocked a Myles Turner shot. Then Gasol got in position for a 20 footer to take the lead with 20.8 seconds left. It looked to be going awry.
Instead of falling back or standing, the 35-year-old Gasol ran for the rebound—yes, someone followed his shot!—and beat the 20-year-old Turner to the ball despite being twice as far away. Reacting late, Turner crashed into Gasol, sending him to the floor and the ball out of bounds. There was no foul call, but Bulls’ ball with 19.9 seconds left. Instead of Indiana being able to wait for a last shot, it was the Bulls. Thanks to Gasol’s hustle.
It’s not the way to quit on a season or a coach. That’s easy to do; this is more difficult.
Consider Rose, playing through injuries and an elbow that was reinjured in the first moments of the game. Rose should be one of the best stories in the NBA this season instead of a daily examination of his shots, comments or passes.
Rose is fourth on the team in games played, third in minutes played and second in starts, on pace to play 70 games. This after the worst medical situation of anyone in the NBA the last four years with three knee surgeries and facial surgery. Rose has played more games this season than the last three years combined. You could see his legs aren’t there trying to gut out the rest of the season. He’s not finishing like he did a month ago, the obvious fatigue of barely playing for three years.
“Sore elbow,” Rose said. “Just try to play through it. Just trying to give my all right now. Tonight I tried to give everything I have even though I couldn’t go left and I’m basically a left handed driver; tried to give the team whatever I had.”
Consider Butler in maybe the worst shooting slump of his career. It comes after a knee injury and back problems, also trying to push to the end. They could have sat out, been shut down for the season with plenty of support. Heck, they play more than guys from contending teams like the Spurs, or the Thunder who rested Kevin Durant in Detroit Tuesday. The Kings rested Rajon Rondo. What? The whole league has gone nuts with these days off as the Bulls play on.
Gibson finally had to give in to a rib injury that has had him wincing with every move for several games even as he battled on the boards like no one else on the team. Bobby Portis started the second half for him and played well.
And then there was Gasol throwing himself toward his miss—and he doesn’t exactly explode from a standing start like a sprinter—to save the game. They may not be good enough given their circumstances; they may have given away too many games months back as they tried to adjust and rebelled at times. But they are trying. The bench was up, using all the body language they had as Butler took that last shot, Aaron Brooks already in a dance of anticipation as the ball swished through. Earlier, there was Gasol hugging Mirotic after a three.
“We want to get into the playoffs,” reiterated Butler. “We have to focus on winning these games we have at hand and hopefully we end up in the playoffs.”
It’s also been laborious for Mike Dunleavy, who missed half the season after back surgery and then was felled by a virus a few weeks back. He’s been unable to regain his form, and Hoiberg tried to get him going as the Bulls began the game with a play for Dunleavy. Hoiberg is deft in understanding as a former player the importance of gaining that confidence. But in the end, Hoiberg cut back Dunleavy’s time to about 17 minutes.
That was partially due to Mirotic, coming in missing 11 of his last 13 threes and getting going in that second quarter. The starters turned over an early 15-10 lead to the reserves, who this time thanks to Mirotic got something going before halftime. One of the biggest contributors was center Cristiano Felicio with a saving block late in the third quarter and a pair of tipins with physical play early in the fourth quarter when the Bulls went ahead 93-86 behind the reserves.
“Guys had big games like Niko, but little plays like Dun’s (Dunleavy) charge or Aaron throwing a great pass to Niko for a three; we need everybody right now,” said Butler. “Cris was huge.”
Butler did finish a pair of those backdoor dunks from Gasol as most teams have stopped that play lately. But you can see Butler having difficulty with explosive moves in the half court. Earlier this season, he’d beat his man, draw fouls. He attempted just two free throws Tuesday and has attempted 17 total in the last five games. Before his knee injury, he was among the league leaders averaging eight free throw attempts per game.
The Bulls had this brutal stretch after going ahead 93-86. The Pacers went on a 10-0 run as the Bulls were zero for nine with six turnovers. Mirotic finally ended the nearly seven scoreless minutes with a three to tie the game at 96 with 2:19 left.
Typical in the midst of that was Butler stuck again, then handing the ball to Rose with three seconds on the shot clock. It became a 24-second turnover violation. Rose’s left arm was wrapped to protect his elbow, Gibson was out, Moore was just back. So the Pacers were watching Mirotic.
Hoiberg came up with a nice play fake out of the timeout.
Aware the Pacers were switching screens with Mirotic, Mirotic was called to come to Butler to set the screen. But Mirotic then slipped instead of setting the screen, momentarily confusing the Pacers’ defenders as George backed off Butler to go with Mirotic. It gave Butler just enough space and he swished the open look.
“I’m glad my coaches and teammates have faith in me to still shoot the ball late,” said Butler. “I haven’t been making shots. That shows the confidence they have in me. I have confidence in myself, but it’s a good feeling to know they want me to take that shot. If I wasn’t open, I was going to pass it. I got a great screen by Niko; it was a great play call by coach, decent shot. Hopefully this starts a trend.”
It’s life support, and they make not make it. But they are fighting.