It wasn't too long ago the NBA world was laughing about the Bulls, 3-20 and last in scoring, shooting, just about every significant statistical category but teammates fighting. It turns out the Bulls players were laughing, too. But they weren't joking, and that continued to be clear Wednesday with yet another victory, this time a gritty, comeback 92-87 win over the New York Knicks.
"We joked about it all the time," Kris Dunn said about the ugly start. "We just laughed because the whole time we were positive; we didn't care about the losses we had because we understood we could have won (some of) those games. There were a lot of close games we let slip. We just laugh because out of nowhere we just changed it. That chemistry clicked and right now we're tough. We're going out and competing with each and every team we play against."
And, no joke, beating most of them as the Bulls have been a December heat wave, unexpected but welcome with their sizzling ninth win in the last 11 games. This one was from a 15-point deficit with vital defensive plays down the stretch in holding the Knicks to 14 fourth quarter points and without a field goal for the last four minutes.
"Defensively, I thought we were locked in," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We were getting stops. They were going under and we couldn't make a shot (33 percent fourth quarter shooting). But I'm proud of the guys for finding a way to get a big win. I think we've done a really good job with our composure. We're hanging in there through tough times. We got down 15 (late in the second quarter) and those guys had their heads up in the huddle, they were paying attention, they were talking to each other and they found a way to get us back in the game in a key stretch. We have had a lot of growth in finding a way to (win close games)."
The Bulls were led by Dunn with 17 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals, and two very clutch free throws with 7.8 seconds left after David Nwaba fanned on two just 17 seconds earlier. Lauri Markkanen had 12 points, and it was Markkanen and Dunn with the crucial late plays to save a game in which the Bulls still had a 10-point third quarter deficit.
"We believed in ourselves," said Dunn. "Everybody was trying to build that chemistry. I think the chemistry is the biggest thing right now. We're clicking as a unit. Everyone is liking one another, everyone is positive, we're listening to the coaching staff. They do a great job with the game plans and we're just trying to follow it."
The Bulls got 11 points each from Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday and nine points and a team high nine rebounds from Denzel Valentine. Nikola Mirotic had four points, his fewest since his return that coincided with the turnaround. Though significantly and perhaps symbolically it was Mirotic with the extra pass when he had a three to Holiday with 3:01 left for the more open three that tied the game at 86.
It then was two minutes of misery for both teams, jump shots ricocheting off the rim so hard fans almost were starting to ask for helmet protection. Until the 12-22 Bulls made the plays against the Knicks, now 17-17.
The first big one was with about a minute left when Courtney Lee missed a 20 footer. Mirotic grabbed one of his eight rebounds and handed to Dunn, who began his dribble and looked ahead. It was about team and not being the hero.
"Just keep fighting," said Dunn. "There are going to be games where the ball doesn't go in. We didn't get down on ourselves, we kept battling. Coaching staff kept being positive in the huddle and we kept fighting as a group."
Markkanen has been uncertain with his shot since returning from missing three games with back spasms. He's looked tentative in some games, shooting about 40 percent in the previous five games and 30 percent on threes.
"Obviously, my shot hasn't been falling," acknowledged Markkanen. "So I have to try to get some different things to score and help the team the other way; get to the rim helps a lot."
One of the drills the Bulls work on relentlessly is a play where the big man leaks out on a miss from the wing. The Bulls were excellent all game defending Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, who had 23 points. But he was held off by Markkanen and then fronted and pushed around when the Knicks tried to switch. Holiday was excellent pressuring and keeping passes away from Porzingis.
The guys from New Gomorrah had the ball with a minute left with the game tied at 86. They came into the front court looking for Porzingis. Holiday overplayed Porzingis on the switch, denying the ball. So Lee took a tough shot over Markkanen's outstretched hand. As the ball bounced off the rim to Mirotic, Markkanen took off running the left side and sprinted past four retreating Knicks, who mirrored their city: Stop and go in traffic. A lot of honking out whose fault it was. Dunn flicked a pass 50 feet to Markkanen for the dunk and 88-86 Bulls lead with 39.2 seconds left. It was the Bulls first lead since midway through the first quarter.
"Something we (work on) every day," said Markkanen. "Saw the opening; great pass from Kris."
Still hardly over, but also hardly the last rookie highlight.
The Knicks did a dribble weave on top of the floor getting the ball to Lee to again try for the switch with Porzingis. Porzingis screened Holiday and Markkanen picked up a driving Lee. Markkanen cut him off and Lee dribbled back outside. The ball bounced off Lee on his dribble to Enes Kanter in the left corner. Kanter threw back to Lee. But Markkanen stepped in to intercept the pass and took off running. He passed to Dunn who passed back to Nwaba, who was fouled. But then Nwaba missed both free throws with 7.8 seconds left and the Bulls still ahead 88-86. Lost opportunity. Sign of bad things to come?
"We needed a stop," said Markkanen. "That's what I was trying to do, put on ball pressure and he lost it; small guard there and I didn't want him to get the ball back and isolate me. I was able to deny that."
No quit with these Bulls.
The Bulls fouled Jarrett Jack, but he mercifully missed one of two to leave the Bulls ahead 88-87 with 8.5 seconds left. The Bulls wanted Dunn with the ball and he swished both free throws as the Knicks had to foul.
"I want to be the guy to make plays for the team," said Dunn.
It was 90-87 Bulls with 7.8 seconds left.
And then it was yet another defensive stand for the Bulls.
The Knicks were looking for the three to tie, but the Bulls had it covered. First Doug McDermott came circling from the left baseline. But Nwaba shadowed him, denying any inbounds pass. Markkanen switched off to pick up McDermott with Porzingis rolling toward the ball. But Mirotic in for defense picked him up while Dunn shaded to the cutting Porzingis to deny that pass. Now with time running out, inbounder Michael Beasley threw to Kanter. He shot a three that wasn't close and the ball went to the Bulls to essentially end the game.
"That tells a lot about this team," said Markkanen. "Being able to do that even though we were struggling offensively we still were able to find a way to come back before halftime. Then we were down again in the third and able to come back again. We do it for each other; everyone wants to win and that's all we care about."
Ten games under .500 doesn't draw too much attention. But this Bulls turnaround has to be one of the most unexpected stories of the NBA season.
The Bulls 3-17 on December 1 have clinched a winning record for December. If Hoiberg is not Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for this amazing turnaround it will only prove the NBA's longtime bias toward Nebraska and former mayors.
"He's a great coach," said Dunn. "He just gets it. As a coach, he understands what players need. He gives us a lot of positive energy. He gives everybody confidence. He doesn't try to get too mad on players. His offense definitely works for everybody. We've got a lot of shooters, so he makes sure everybody gets in the right spot, he makes sure everybody gets the right looks. And it's up to us to make the shots, but he does a great job. He's a fantastic coach, I can't say more about him."
This was figuring to be a letdown game after the physical and emotional win in Milwaukee Tuesday that ended with Dunn and Khris Middleton wrestling on the floor, Giannis Antetokounmpo taking shots at Bulls players.
"That was as high paced, as physical a game as we've played all year last in Milwaukee. And it showed early in this game," said Hoiberg. "I didn't think we came out with great energy; our focus wasn't great, we were turning the ball over. We did things that we had not been doing and we just looked like a fatigued team."
And predictably trailing, 28-17 after one quarter and 46-31 with four minutes left in the second quarter.
Before what Hoiberg called the most important part of the game for the Bulls, a 15-2 run led by Valentine, Markkanen and Holiday. The Knicks played the part of Manhattan subway commuters, moving only occasionally.
"The key stretch in my opinion was late in the second quarter when we cut the 15-point deficit to three going into the halftime," said Hoiberg. "If we go into the locker room down 15, it would've been very difficult to come back. We found a way to pull ourselves back in the game and get a little momentum going into the half. When they went on the run (early in the third quarter), it didn't go from 15 to 25, it went up to....my math sucks, but you know what I'm saying."
He's saying he's got some developing competitors on that roster.
Dunn found his offense with 11 third quarter points after the Knicks went back ahead 63-56. And then Nwaba had a pair of late layups and defensive plays to get then Bulls within 73-71 after three.
Then it was fourth quarter time. You know, winnin' time for the Bulls. You'd get a good laugh about that a few weeks ago. Not lately.