The Bulls Wednesday had a pair of high scoring All-Stars on the bench watching, injured Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, the latter who was a late scratch with hamstring and leg soreness issues. The visiting Washington Wizards had a pair of high scoring stars in the game, Bradley Beal with a team high 19 points and John Wall with 16 points and seven assists.
The best players, however, were the Bulls closers, Doug McDermott and E’Twaun Moore, who combined to score 18 of the Bulls 20 fourth quarter points and pull away from the Wizards for a 109-104 victory.
“There was a stretch of the game where the young guys were in there. I was looking to see the names on the back of their jerseys,” said Mike Dunleavy. “I didn’t even recognize some of them.”
Well, maybe he did, but you get the point about one of the Bulls’ more improbable and inspiring wins of the season, one with Butler, Rose, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah out and Pau Gasol playing through the flu and a late entry after missing practice Tuesday.
And this against a Washington team not only chasing the Bulls for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but who came in with its roster healthy and winners of four of their last six games. But with an unlikely starting backcourt of Tony Snell and Moore and having to close strong after the Wizards pulled within 91-88 with 8:37 left, it was Moore with three clutch runners and short jump shots and McDermott with an in-your-face baseline jumper, running one hander and power slam dunk on a pass from Taj Gibson to pull away from a desperate and aggressive Wizards team.
“You get tired of losing,” noted Moore of the Bulls losing 14 of 19 before the current three straight wins. “After awhile there’s no place to go but up; you hate that feeling. What you can do about it is go keep fighting. These wins were important. It was no secret; we all knew (we were playing poorly). Just come out and leave everything on the court.
“It’s definitely a confidence builder, lets the guys in the locker room know we do have enough to win games. If we stay together,” said Moore, “we can go out there and accomplish some great things.”
That still remains a long way off with players like Butler and Mirotic out at least a few more weeks. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Rose informed him of pain symptoms Wednesday afternoon. Then Hoiberg said they consulted team physician Dr. Brian Cole. Hoiberg said he agreed given the circumstances of Rose’s history it was proper to be cautious at this time. There was no indication is was a serious problem.
And then came the most unlikely of wins.
The Bulls moved to 30-26 while Washington fell to 26-30. The Bulls are tied for sixth in the East with Atlanta, whom they visit Friday. The Hawks are 2-0 over the Bulls this season. The Bulls lead ninth place Detroit by two games. But the Bulls also are two games behind third place Boston.
The Bulls had a season best seven players in double figures led by Moore and Gibson, each with 17. Gasol had 10 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists and wasn’t able to address reporters afterward because of his illness. McDermott had 14 points, Snell had 16 and four of five threes and Mike Dunleavy had 14.
What was perhaps most significant was it was the third consecutive game the Bulls shot at least 50 percent for the first time in two years; the Bulls had 26 assists and are averaging about 30 the last three games. Gibson had a career high seven assists and seven rebounds in the Bulls 50-42 rebounding edge even as Washington had 10 more free throw attempts.
What it all meant suggests a conundrum the Bulls face.
They’ve moved the ball the best they have all season with the pace coach Fred Hoiberg talked about with the varied threats on the floor, the spacing and three-point shooting that has produced better shots. It’s no coincidence it comes without Noah, Mirotic and Butler. They tend to stop the ball and survey the floor the most. However, the Bulls cannot succeed in the long term without the talent, scoring and shooting of Butler and Mirotic. Both are integral to the team’s success, Butler especially with his defense and Mirotic with his shooting and potential matchup issues for opponents. Plus, Butler’s half court play down the stretch and ability to get to the free throw line can change games.
As beautiful as the Bulls have played the last few games, it’s likely difficult to ask players like Moore, McDermott and Dunleavy to bail out the team on a regular basis. Rose presumably will not be out for long, and the hope is Butler or Mirotic can recover soon. Though there is no immediate prognosis available on either.
But there’s an enthusiasm and light heartedness among the players that seemed to be missing for most of the season as they appeared to stagger under the weight of internal and external expectations. Perhaps being given up upon by so many in the community eased that pressure. Maybe they just needed that one week All-Star break. Whatever the situation, they’ve returned beyond that uncertain effort in Cleveland with confidence and concentration.
And with wins over second place Toronto and the Wizards team that knocked them out in five games in the 2014 playoffs and had won five of the last eight in the regular season.
But even shorthanded and with some on the ESPN national TV crew bemoaning having to see the Bulls without so many regulars, the Bulls were animated and stimulating, from a pair of rim rattling McDermott dunks—“ I had no idea I could even do that.”—to new acquisition Justin Holiday making his first shot, Cristiano Felicio finishing a sharp pick and roll move with a tough catch and slam dunk and Aaron Brooks bouncing back from some tough outings to score 11 points and run the offense when Washington was pressuring.
“I was really proud of the guys,” said Hoiberg. “Pau did not look good before the game; we told him to show up (late). He fought and battled all the way through; had a couple of chances for a triple double. Justin Holiday, the first time he touches the ball he hits a three. That’s my kind of guy. Everybody found a way. Our overall movement has been really good in these last three games, and Doug has been a recipient of that. I thought we took a step in the right direction (with toughness).”
And that more aesthetic way of playing.
“The hardest thing to guard in this league is stuff that’s just random,” reiterated Dunleavy. “You come down with a play every time it’s tough; you’re calling it out and the other team knows what it is; we’re trying to play freely and play off each other.”
And it looked pretty good even without their most talented players.
Could there be something more there than it’s seemed?
The Bulls got a rousing start with an enthusiastic national anthem sung by Bulls purchasing manager Ben Adair. It was a wild first quarter with the Wizards edging ahead 31-28. Snell responded with a pair of threes and ended up scoring in double figures for the first time in six weeks. But what helped neutralize the Wizards was the way the Bulls exploited Washington’s stretch four lineup with Gibson powering inside against smaller players. Gasol was adept with high/low passes to find Gibson.
You sometimes wonder why teams don’t do that more against Golden State. Not that anyone is suggesting a Bulls Finals strategy.
It’s been Gibson who’s had the toughness of a diamond in this stretch without the other veterans. Often overlooked, Gibson is the epitome of the hard hat for the Bulls. That’s been Noah’s role, but he is lost for the season after shoulder surgery. So Gibson has asserted himself more, in part, he said from a pep talk from Gasol.
“I had a long dinner talk with Pau and he told me everybody has to do something and put more into it,” Gibson related. “Go back into the gym, put more into it and be more aggressive. I have to be more assertive and call for the ball and be aggressive.
“Knowing we were down Derrick, Niko, Jimmy, Joakim, and we almost lost Pau, but it was no strange situation for us,” said Gibson. “I told guys to go out and play with a little bit of grit, with your back against the wall, knowing you’ve got a chance to do something special. From the jump guys were being real scrappy, guys were playing freely.
“Doug, he’s been relentless,” said Gibson. “Comes in with the young guys, no complaints, understands he is capable of doing a lot of things. He doesn’t understand how good he really is. Each game he is showing better stuff; the sky is the limit for Doug.
“E’Twaun has given us everything,” added Gibson. “Guards the best wing, puts points on the board, always listens to the coach, never once complains. Whenever he has a tough coverage or he knows one of our players messed up on a coverage to help him he never complains. He goes and does his job like a true professional. He’s never complained the last two years even when he wasn’t getting that much playing time. But when the time comes to step up he steps up.
“I learned from a good coach once upon a time you have to put more into it when it doesn’t go your way,” said Gibson. “I’m trying to put more into my game and being patient and tonight was a testament to being patient. My teammates wanted me to be aggressive and I have to have it in myself to go get it.”
The Wizards crept ahead 43-37 in the second quarter before Gibson called for the ball and did something with it, 11 second quarter points punishing Jared Dudley and the ball whipping around like in a baseball infield drill, one Dunleavy pass to Gasol then to Gibson for a finish that took a matter of a few seconds. That enabled the Bulls to lead 57-55 at halftime.
Though it still seemed a Wizards inevitability given the talent discrepancy.
The key perhaps was a 13-0 third quarter stretch when Snell, Moore and Dunleavy made threes, Dunleavy’s as he sprinted into the right corner and Moore found him with a long cross court pass. There just hadn’t been much of that sort of snappy ball movement the first few months.
Then McDermott shocked the crowd, his teammates and certainly Markieff Morris with a baseline drive and powerful slam dunk. The Wizards called time with the Bulls ahead by 15 and when McDermott came back out some kids sitting courtside were yelling at McDermott they had no idea he could do that.
Few of us did.
“He’s sneaky athletic,” said Dunleavy.
“I feel I took a big step forward from my rookie year; that’s not very tough to do,” McDermott said with his typically understated humor. “I’ve been shooting it great from perimeter all year (58 percent the last six games). I’ve spaced the floor for this team. Just obviously you have to play on both ends and there are times where I get beat out there; now we’re really trying to help out as a team on defense. Have guys flooding to the ball, recognizing mismatches; overall I feel I’ve taken a big step forward.
“I didn’t realize there was someone there (on the Morris dunk), to be honest,” said McDermott. “Just threw it down. Once I got that it propelled me the rest of the night. The kids (courtside), they said, ‘I didn’t know you had that in you.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Neither did I.’ Lots of ups and downs for me this season. I haven’t been used to playing so many games, but my body is getting used to it, my mind is getting used to it and I’m feeling more comfortable.”
The young group with Portis, Felicio and Snell fell into some isolation play to start the fourth quarter and the Wizards quickly took advantage to get within three. It seemed it would be another big blown lead. But Moore came out of the timeout with a runner, McDermott had a strong one handed runner to follow, Gibson fought off a double team to find McDermott cutting down the lane for another dunk and then Moore took on the Wizards as Butler or Rose might do, making one clutch basket after another until the final verdict was essentially determined.
Moore is as humble and plain spoken as anyone among the Bulls. But he burns with a competitive desire and fire that belies his demeanor. It’s becoming too common lately to be a coincidence. So Moore, the quiet kid from East Chicago, patiently explained once again that you don’t have to draw attention to yourself to be worthy of the attention.
“Just being a basketball player,” Moore offered. “I’m always confident in my abilities. When I have the ball in my hand just go and make a play. It’s not like I’ve never done it before. This is my fifth year in the league. I know some people don’t realize that. They think it’s my second. I’ve been other places; I’ve had big games before.
“I’ve never been scared when the opportunity is there,” said Moore. “Go out and take the shot. I definitely look forward to that. That’s what gets me going, moments like that. When things get tight everyone is excited. I love that. It’s cool.
“I guess I do surprise (people) sometimes,” he acknowledged. “It’s my personality. I’ve always been laid back. I talk a little; I’m just not loud.”
The Bulls may be starting to make some noise in their own quiet way.