Jimmy Butler, we know, can defend. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before Monday’s Bulls game with the Spurs likened Butler to his own star, Kawhi Leonard, as among the best two-way players in the game. And it was Butler with a terrific defensive play, refusing to go for the pump fake, bodying up the physical Leonard and forcing Leonard to air ball a potential tying three-point shot with 4.9 seconds remaining.
But it also was Pau Gasol with 1:06 left in a tie game blocking a LaMarcus Aldridge layup attempt that almost seemed in, and then Derrick Rose flying out to Tony Parker with a second left to save the game, Parker open for a split second for that three to tie after Tim Duncan retrieved Leonard’s miss and thwarting Parker’s attempt.
“Derrick blocked Tony Parker’s shot in the corner,” noted Butler. “That was big, if not a bigger defensive play. It was an overall team effort and team defense at the end of the game. (Now with nine of 10 at home) protect the home floor and pull out wins. Everyone is confident and trying to string together (wins).”
The Bulls got an excellent, if perhaps a bit surprising, start on that Monday with the 92-89 victory over the Spurs.
It came in an exciting and entertaining game marked by the theatrics of future Hall of Fame big men Duncan and Gasol going against one another and impressive individual battles featuring Butler and Leonard and Rose and Parker.
Each of the three duos had sequences in the game where they displayed their specialties against one another with the artistry that theater patron Gasol might find at one of his favored ballets.
“Tim is obviously way above me, but he is a guy I looked up to since I got in the league,” said Gasol, who led the Bulls with 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. “Just to be in the same sentence with him, I appreciate it and it’s an honor. He’s a guy I think every young player should resemble and try to have a similar, not career because that is unique, but behavior, approach , professionalism; just an incredible guy.”
As for the crucial block on free agent star Aldridge, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds.
“Not bad,” Gasol said with a smile. “I guess it was (a crucial time). Every play down the stretch has a huge impact and has great meaning, so it was great I was able to come up with the block and get the stop.”
It made for one of those fantastic finishes as the Bulls moved to 10-5 while the Spurs with the league’s second best record fell to 14-4.
“They’d won 11 of 12, 14 of 17,” noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “It’s a championship caliber team. For us to find a way to win it down the stretch even though we weren’t making shots there at the end (the Bulls last basket was a Taj Gibson put back dunk with 6:32 left) is a great sign. Hopefully it’s a confidence builder and hopefully we come out and play well Wednesday (against Denver).”
It’s not to suggest the Bulls as favorites of any sort. But it was the third victory already this season over yet another team many have predicted could win the NBA title. Assuming the Warriors lose any games. And the Bulls were trailing Golden State by a basket with less than two minutes remaining about 10 days ago. But the victory over the Spurs goes in a nice early trophy case of victories also over the East favorite Cavaliers and high scoring Thunder.
“We know how good we are,” said Rose, who 11 points with six assists and just one turnover. “We’re just coming out and getting used to playing a certain kind of way; it will take us a few more games getting used to playing an uptempo game and where guys are supposed to be.”
It’s to be determined how good the Bulls can be, but it was a championship effort against the Spurs, especially shorthanded with Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks out with injuries. E’Twaun Moore stepped in with a strong effort, especially in the fourth quarter when he was paired with Rose and Butler in some of the tougher defensive stands. The Bulls also got some bad news as Hoiberg before the game disclosed that Mike Dunleavy would have to see a specialist because of a setback with his back rehabilitation. It seems likely he’ll be out at least through the end of December.
But both Tony Snell and Doug McDermott had excellent games. Snell was three of three on threes for 11 points and McDermott scored 12 points, eight in a decisive second quarter when the Bulls scored 32 points and Popovich said was the turning point of the game.
“The second quarter was our downfall,” agreed Popovich.
He then ate a live mongoose and dared anyone to ask him about it.
But there was plenty to talk about for the Bulls with seven players scoring at least eight points and Moore and Gibson behind them with the third and fourth best plus/minus ratings in the game.
“To hold that team to 16 points in the fourth quarter…that’s obviously a great team with a lot of fire power,” enthused Hoiberg. “They are also one of the top defensive teams in the league (No. 1 in fewest points allowed and No. 3 in lowest opponent shooting). Jo (Noah) was awesome, flirting with a triple double (eight points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in 23 minutes off the bench). He made big play after big play for us. I thought Tony Snell was terrific, Doug was really good, Taj had some good defensive plays, E’Twaun Moore in that second half was really good. Everybody who stepped on the floor contributed and it took every last one of those guys to get this win.
“We’ve got a lot of great pros who have been around a long time who we are comfortable putting in games,” said Hoiberg. “We talked about in preseason it would be very difficult to settle on a rotation and it still is because we have guys that may not play a lot one night who come in and make big plays for us on another night; it’s the confidence in the guys to go out and play well and they stepped up tonight.”
That was perhaps most true of Noah, who even scored twice after crossing over his defender and driving to the basket.
“It worked tonight,” Noah said with a grin of the crossover.
But it was an important grin as Noah’s emotion and enthusiasm often crosses over to become the leadership balm for the Bulls volatile mix. And Monday Noah was playing confidently and aggressively, only unusual for this season as he’s adjusted to a bench role for the first time in his Bulls career.
“He’s confident when he’s out there making moves and taking shots he knows he can make,” said Butler. “He gets everybody riled up and hyped; just having him out there making plays for us is big, especially coming off the bench. He’s getting guys the ball where they can score.
“He got his swag back,” Butler added. “You can see the way he’s walking around here, like in the hot tub/cool tub; his spirits are high, he’s smiling. That’s the Jo we knew each and every day.”
But it wasn’t just Noah as Rose held off Parker and added good playmaking and Butler rebounded from the tough assignment on Leonard, who led with 25 points, to close with not only the defensive stop but a pair of free throws with 10.6 seconds left to extend the one-point lead.
“I just saw the lane and I actually tried to dunk that one,” said Butler of his desperation drive with about three seconds left on the shot clock. “I don’t try that very often, but I figured I was going to dunk it or get fouled and I got fouled. I was just trying to get a basket; the easiest way to get one was going at the rim, being aggressive, get fouled step up and knock them down.”
It became the formula for the victory over a very tough team.
And the Bulls also got a nice assist from assistant Jim Boylen, the former Spurs assistant who was up yelling basically every Spurs set as the Bulls fell into their defense.
The Spurs got on top early with a 23-17 first quarter lead as Aldridge made jumper after jumper from mid range. But the Bulls got a rare offensive surge in the second quarter, rarer even as it came from McDermott, who had been playing limited minutes. But with the injuries McDermott got 30 minutes and 12 shots, which is vital for the offense as he has the best touch among all the players with a series of driving bank shots and movement.
The Bulls starters still tend to be a stagnant group. Though McDermott gets criticized on defense, he is one of the few players who regularly cuts through the offense and runs the motion Hoiberg always talks about but few of the starters have mastered. McDermott needs to get more shots, and his play along with Nikola Mirotic making a pair of threes got the Bulls going. Then Rose and Parker engaged in a terrific back and forth late in the second quarter, Rose with a left handed drive and jumper over Parker as Parker came back each time. Rose got the last laugh with a late 20 footer for a 49-48 Bulls halftime lead.
“We believe in ourselves,” said Rose. “Feels good to win after thinking about losing the last two days. We’re just playing; trying to figure everything out.”
Butler had a tough time with Leonard in the third quarter as the maturing Spurs star had several tough spin moves and dunks against Butler that made the fans gasp and saw the Spurs take a five-point lead and then 73-70 after three. Butler admitted he is suffering from a heel injury from that Golden State game, but playing through it. He had five turnovers as Leonard is quick with long arms and kept tipping away balls. Butler finally made a late steal overplaying the passing lanes on his own, a Spurs favorite tactic, and getting a dunk. Still, it looked like Spurs time.
But Snell, who had struggled this season to find offense, kick started the Bulls in the fourth quarter with a three after a tough Gibson offensive rebound and Snell’s own driving score. That with a surprising Noah crossover move that left David West wishing he were back in Indiana led the Bulls to an 81-75 lead with 9:08 left. But this Spurs group is relentless. Leonard and Duncan scored, and then it looked like the Bulls were self destructing when Rose and Butler got caught with the ball for 24-second violations and McDermott and Moore missed threes.
But Rose recognized Gasol gaining mismatches as the Spurs switched, getting Gasol the ball as he was fouled. Gasol made four of six and the Bulls held the Spurs to one field goal in the last 4:20. Still, with 10.6 seconds left the Spurs had a chance to tie.
Foul? Nah. Hoiberg said they’d decided there was too much time to play the foul game and they liked what they had with Butler even on Leonard.
“No foul, just play,” said Butler. “I don’t want to foul because I’ll mess around and foul him in the act of shooting. I think everybody knew he was going to get the ball; didn’t really know where, to tell you the truth. But he had to shoot a three. Contest it and get the rebound, stay down on the pump fake. When he picks up his dribble crowd him a little bit.”
Perfect, just perfect.