Shorthanded Bulls fight valiantly but come up short in Washington

The Bulls team that was supposed to be blown out Tuesday in Washington—C’mon, admit it, you were watching it for the tractor trailer wreck you couldn’t look away from—coulda, woulda and probably shoulda. But the Bulls in the end of a wonderful effort ran into a Wall, the Wizards’ John, whose two jump shots in the last 47 seconds stole away the most unlikely of victories from the Bulls, 101-99.

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,” the poet wrote, “The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’"

“Really proud of the way the guys came out and fought tonight,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Young guys came out and took advantage of the opportunity to get out there under the circumstances we had; jumped out to a great start, shot with a lot of confidence in that first half (for a 61-49 lead). Unfortunately, we had some good looks that didn’t go down in the second half; shot two for 17 from the three-point line in the second half. It wasn’t because of lack of effort. We went out there and fought them until the end. Unfortunately, that shot (a Doug McDermott three to win it with 2.9 seconds left) came up a little short and Wall made huge plays.”

Wall did with 26 points and 14 assists, the Wizards edging ahead of the Bulls at 19-18 while the Bulls fell to 19-20.

But that’s what All-Stars do, and the Bulls didn’t have any, or enough, available.

Jimmy Butler remained back in Chicago with the flu. Hoiberg said Butler remains uncertain for Thursday’s game in New York. Dwyane Wade had a planned rest night for the second of a back to back. Then, Nikola Mirotic also came down with the flu and remained back at the team hotel.

So Jerian Grant started with Michael Carter-Williams in the backcourt against All-Stars Wall and Bradley Beal. McDermott moved into Butler’s spot—and had a tough game with two of 11 shooting for four points—while Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez were upfront.

Denzel Valentine back after a second sprained ankle led six Bulls in double figures with 19 points, making five of 11 threes. Bobby Portis made three of four threes for 13 points and Taj Gibson with 10 points and 12 rebounds even made the second three of his career and first in more than six years.

But the bigger surprise was the return to the rotation of Rajon Rondo, who not only had 12 points, six assists and four rebounds, but he was the catalyst for the Bulls expedited ball movement, thrust and flow in shocking the Wizards with a 61-43 late second quarter lead.

It was a half to admire with 13 Bulls assists, five from Rondo after he was benched for five games with no indication he would play again this season. Rondo first entered the game with the Bulls trailing 17-12 and soon had a steal from Wall and fast break dunk, and then a pair of finger roll scores to send the Bulls to a 36-26 first quarter lead. By the time Rondo substituted out, he was plus-15 in the plus/minus rating. He moved the ball up court quickly, fanned it out for threes to Gibson and Portis and had the Bulls offense looking as free flowing as it has in a while.

“I thought Rondo was really good,” said Hoiberg. “I thought our pace, especially in that first half, was excellent, especially when he was in the game. It was good to see him aggressive, looking to score the basketball; he gave us a real lift. I was happy with the way he kept himself ready and stayed positive in his time out of the lineup. I thought he gave as a positive impact; the pace when he’s out there picks up. We needed that and he delivered.

“I’ve talked to him about (the benching),” Hoiberg said. “The biggest thing is how he’s handled it. He has been a positive influence on the bench for the younger guys; he’s been very vocal encouraging them. In my mind, it was just a matter of time before he got the opportunity to get back out there. He took advantage and we should see him more in the lineup.”

Hoiberg brought Rondo back about four minutes into the second half, but by then the Bulls had squandered just about all of their lead, four early second quarter turnovers leading the Wizards to get within 65-60. The Bulls regained the edge and went back ahead 71-60 in a short lived lead with Beal firing in jumpers with defensive mixups.

“It was great to have Rajon back in the lineup,” added Gibson. “His coaching ability on the court, how he moves the ball; it helps us a lot. We are a much better team with him on the court.”

The Bulls, however, trailed 81-77 after three and it appeared like the inevitable with a healthy Wizards team that had won nine straight at home.

But the Bulls kids weren’t about to give up.

Valentine has a steal and behind the back pass on a drive to Carter-Williams, who missed. But Portis put it back in to get the Bulls within 83-82. Valentine made a spinning half hook to give the Bulls the lead.

“He can put the ball in the hole,” Rondo said of Valentine. “Given an opportunity, a little bit more freedom today. He can play.”

Portis and Valentine then made threes, Valentine doing a little dance at half court after his gave the Bulls a 92-85 lead with 8:12 left.

“We brought energy,” said Valentine of his kiddie corps. “We brought passion; we stay ready. Me, Bobby and the young guys who don’t necessarily play as much, we are in the gym working so when we get our opportunity we’ll be ready. I thought we made the most of our opportunity tonight.”

Wall, though, said he took offense to Valentine’s celebration, and inevitably he would have his revenge.

The Bulls went cold first, going more than five minutes without a point after Valentine’s three. Washington took a 95-92 lead with 4:31 left. But Gibson was a powerhouse on the boards. He rebounded Carter-Williams’ miss among three Wizards, put it back in and was fouled. That tied the game at 95 with 2:08 left. Ball game. Two minutes and anyone could take it; the Bulls just couldn’t.

Marcin Gortat put back a Wall miss for the Washington lead, but Rondo tied it with 1:33 left with a 16 foot Jimmy step back. Then Beal missed.

But the Bulls had the chance as Robin Lopez with 14 points was fouled on a rebound of a Rondo miss with 57.6 seconds left. He made both for a 99-97 Bulls lead.

Just a stop or two; but, alas.

Wall angled in from 18 feet and made the jumper, his former “umper” game—you know, no J—looking long gone.

The Bulls then with 47.4 seconds left, Hoiberg said, opted to hold the ball so as not to give the Wizards a two-for-one opportunity. But Carter-Williams kept it himself the full possession and missed a 16 footer with 30 seconds left.

“Michael got the switch, tried to seek contact,” explained Hoiberg. “Wanted to get him in an attack position and that’s what we did.”

Wall then dribbled down for another mid range jumper that would prove the winner with 5.9 seconds left. The Bulls got McDermott on top for a chance at a three that missed to basically end the game.

“Wanted to get a good look,” said Hoiberg. “Doug came off clean; that was the shot. Doug was confident. He’s our best shooter; ran kind of a misdirection. I thought we executed it real well; we’ll take that shot.

Unfortunately, didn’t go in.”

So was it a Bulls team taken lightly or a team deeper with its resolve?

“The young guys did a good job, played freely, so live with it,” said Gibson. “These are the games tough to swallow because you felt you should have won. I told the young guys, ‘Build from it and move forward.’ This is the kind of basketball you want; had three young guys in the huddle wanting to take the last shot, felt confident about it. Even though we missed a couple of shots (late) it didn’t matter. We had a chance to win the game. Get one stop and win the game. Then John Wall hit two contested mid range; we’ll live with it. We had a chance. We fought; just got to finish.”