Same red and white jerseys with the angry Bull logo, same Rondo sneer, same inability to find a barber shop for Butler and Lopez. But there’s something very different about this Bulls team that Saturday came up with a furious rally to erase a nine-point deficit in the last five minutes to defeat the Atlanta Hawks 106-104.
The decisive points came on a pair of Jimmy Butler free throws with 2.1 seconds left after being fouled shooting a jumper. It was the culmination of nine straight Butler points, all in the last 2:38 to produce the unlikely comeback and suddenly vault the Bulls into seventh place in the wild and wacky Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Bulls at 37-39 are in a three-way tie for seventh through ninth with Indiana and Miami, though the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over each. Butler finished with 33 points, which we’ve seen, though in almost 43 minutes and playing the entire second half. Rajon Rondo had a season high 25 points with 11 rebounds and Denzel Valentine added 13 points, and with two crucial three pointers with the Bulls trailing 100-91 coming out of a timeout with 4:50 left. This was after the Bulls lost a 10-point third quarter lead in being outworked by an aggressive Atlanta team dominating the rebounding and free throw line.
Those Bulls of not very long ago would have shrugged and began thinking of reasons for defeat.
These Bulls, winners of three straight and four of five, urged on by a bench filled with lively players leaping up and down in anticipation, put their heads down. No longer in sorrow, but determination.
“We just kept fighting and chugging away at it,” Rondo added. “ Guys stepped up and made big plays on both ends of the floor. We’re not stopping at the seven seed. We have a nice schedule ahead of us. We’re hoping to move up even more. Hopefully, a couple of teams slip behind. I think the other teams have a tougher schedule than us. But it’s about one game at a time.”
Yes, Butler put on his Super Jimmy cape late in the third quarter to score the last 10 points of the quarter after the team went flat. That enabled the Bulls to stay in the game, trailing 84-79 after three. And there was Butler’s closing kick with a Valentine’s Day (he did start it with a pair of threes) assortment of sweet scoring plays, a full court drive, a three, a tough layup through three Hawks defenders to tie the game at 104 on an inbounds pass from Rondo and the clinching free throw. There also were a pair of jumpers badly missed to keep everyone from taking a deep breath. And then surviving Tim Hardaway Jr.’s attempted winning three at the buzzer.
That was fun.
“I always look at it like nobody picked us to be in the playoffs, nobody picked us to win, anyway,” said Butler. “I’m just out there playing basketball. I want to win. I’m just doing what everybody asked me to do, so to speak.
“I wouldn’t say that’s what I asked to do,” Butler added about his fireman quarter finishes. “But that’s what I want to do. No disrespect to my teammates or anybody, but Fred (Hoiberg) said, ‘Are you tired?’ I said no. I want to play. I want to be the reason we win. He was looking out for me, telling me we had another one tomorrow, but I told him ‘I’m not worried about tomorrow; I’m worried about the right now.’ So whatever they need for me to do I’m going out there and doing it.”
But not without Rondo, who has been a marvel of late after a rocky season of being out of the rotation, with the second unit, considered a possibility to even be released. But he’s fought off every point guard challenge to emerge as a leader on and off the court. He even credited some intense practices lately for the team’s healthier demeanor, adding there nearly were fights that he instigated.
Rondo is shooting 51.2 percent on threes since March 1, making three of six against the Hawks. He shot 11 of 18 overall and in the last 10 games is averaging 13.1 points, 8.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds.
“I tell ‘do (his suffix nickname) all the time I need him to be aggressive,” said Butler. “I know he wants to pass and facilitate, but when you are open and driving the lane, put that ball on the rim, make them guard you so they can’t just focus on myself and he’s been doing a great job of that, shooting the ball with confidence, getting in there finishing, getting to the line. I like that from him.”
It’s also perhaps appropriate to draw this distinction with the Bulls play recently in this dramatic comeback comes against the Hawks. The last time the Hawks were in the United Center, the Bulls blew a late double digit lead, Dwyane Wade and Butler went nuclear about the meltdown, Rondo responded sardonically, there were fines, benchings and what seemed like a trap door sprung to basketball oblivion.
So fittingly, or perhaps to emphasize the comparison, it was the more highly regarded Hawks who collapsed, or at least were made to by superior Bulls play, Butler’s dominance, Rondo’s electricity, Valentine’s clutch shooting, Michael Carter-Williams’ defensive prowess, Nikola Mirotic’s threat.
Mirotic was just two of eight for eight points after his run of 28-point games. But he had a team best—by far--plus-17 because the Hawks became consumed with running him off his shot. That created space for Rondo drives, Valentine threes. Plus, Mirotic had nine rebounds and five assists, getting teammates easy open corner shots as the Hawks chased him on drives as well.
It seems the Bulls finally have stumbled onto something that works, Rondo and Butler with the trio of Valentine, Paul Zipser and Carter-Williams interchangeable, Mirotic and Robin Lopez. The ball doesn’t stop any longer with everyone standing around. Butler has accepted moving to get the ball until those last crucial minutes when he is needed, not unlike one of Michael Jordan’s patterns.
It’s as close to Hoiberg’s talk about space and pace that we’ve seen, the Bulls making double figure threes for the sixth consecutive game. They were 12 for 30, which added to them getting beat on the boards, 45-40 overall and a desperate 17-4 on second chance points. Plus the more aggressive Hawks attacked the basket for more free throw attempts than the home team, double before Butler put his head down late in the third quarter.
But that’s what happens with teams playing expeditiously, the Bulls with 106 points against an Atlanta team in the top five defensively. The rotation is tighter with the starters dominating and a few reserves with specialist minutes depending on matchups, much like a playoff rotation. The roles are better defined, and the enthusiasm is apparent on the court and deep into the bench with teammates not only standing up to watch the donut race.
“It is a completely different team,” said Butler when asked about that prior Atlanta debacle. “That’s so far in the past. Everything that happened after that obviously, we’re locked in, focused, doing what we are supposed to be doing, doing what the coaches ask of us and when we do that we find ourselves in a great position at the end of the game.
Chicago basketball. Yes, they can say it with pride.
The Bulls got a fast start as Zipser made a pair of threes, though it was Rondo’s full court drive for a 17-10 lead that sent Atlanta into the huddle. Mirotic with his hot play obviously made the scouting report and the Hawks without injured Paul Millsap were chasing him everywhere. The change in the Bulls style and demeanor, also with the trade of Taj Gibson, leaves them vulnerable inside now. The Hawks had a 46-32 margin on points inside. And to cold shooting streaks. They’d endure several in this game as the Hawks got within 23-21 after one quarter. It was Rondo with two blinding full court drives for scores to close the first half with a 52-46 Bulls lead.
Back in the starting lineup and now not just looking to pass, Rondo has become the offensive threat he hasn’t been since his ACL surgery four years ago. But with Hardaway scoring 11 straight third quarter points, Dennis Schroder with 29 points getting to the free throw line and the Hawks crushing the Bulls with second chance points, Atlanta charged back from a 10-point deficit early in the third quarter to lead 84-79 after three.
The Hawks shot 10 free throws in the quarter to none for the Bulls the first 10 minutes. It looked like one of those Bulls here-we-go-again moments as the Hawks had a three offensive rebound sequence that led to an Ersan Ilyasova three for a 96-88 lead. That followed an Ilyasova putback dunk of a Hardaway miss.
“In the beginning of the season and past this All Star break, in the past we have been folding and it would get worse,” admitted Valentine. “Now we have a totally different mindset that we can make the playoffs and do some things. So weweren’t going to (give up) with a 10-point (Atlanta) lead when we were just up; we liked our chances going to seventh place.
“What boosts Jimmy's confidence,” Valentine added, “is when other people come along, too. He was hot and then he got tired. Nobody stepped up on the offensive end. So that's a lot of pressure on one person. I think as soon as other people stepped up, Jimmy gets confident again and wants to take over.”
This time it was Valentine, also lost and rarely playing the first half of the season, but now a vital three-point threat. He showed it despite missing four of his first five threes when the Bulls came out of the timeout with 4:50 left trailing by nine.
Butler drove the lane and fired to Valentine in the right corner. His three was good: 100-94 Atlanta.
Plus, the defense tightened with what looks like the Bulls best unit now with Rondo, Butler, Valentine, Mirotic and Lopez. Butler, despite not sitting out the second half, switched to defend the elusive Schroder, who was beating the other guards off the perimeter.
He missed, Lopez did while being forced to shoot late on a poor possession, Ilyasova missed, Valentine did, as well. Dwight Howard then missed a lob dunk. Mirotic got the long rebound, fired an outlet to Rondo, who raced up court and found Valentine in transition for the three to trail 100-97 with 3:11 left. Valentine pounded his chest in defiance. One possession game, as the broadcasters love to say.
“(Jimmy) was phenomenal again,” said Hoiberg. “I thought he and Rondo did a great job of getting us into the offense. Denzel stepped up and hit two huge threes for us right after missing one. It shows what type of kid he is, the type of confidence that he has in himself. And Jimmy did everything again.”
Mirotic on a switch did a good job of not letting Schroder get past. He fired to Kent Bazemore, who missed. Butler beat Bazemore off the top for a layup getting past Howard to bring the Bulls within 100-99 with 2:38 left. Schroder drove it back for a score. But Butler faced up on a three to tie the game at 102 with 1:59 left. Mirotic after being beaten by Schroder the last time, held him off this time on yet another switch (the Bulls do seem to give into them too often) and on a replay the Bulls got possession. Butler then missed a pair of jumpers that seemed a bit forced. But he was making more than he was missing. Schroder pushed the second miss ahead for a short jumper and 104-102 Atlanta lead with 35.8 seconds left.
It was good stuff, however, even as it was looking like just a good comeback try.
But the Bulls came out of the timeout with a nice change of pace. Butler cut toward the basket off the top with Rondo inbounding. Lopez screened Bazemore to open a lane for Butler. Butler got the inbounds and faked Bazemore into a flyby. Butler then did it himself, powering past Ilyasova and through Howard for a layup and 104 tie with 32.9 seconds left. Carter-Williams knocked the ball away from Schroder on a drive when the Hawks got the ball and it went out of bounds to the Bulls.
Butler then held the ball and dribbled to the right wing for a 22 footer. He was fouled on the arm by Bazemore and made the two free throws. Hardaway got an open shot for the win, but it bounded off the back of the rim long. Yes, how about that.
“I am not supposed to be here, anyway,” said Butler. “I’m supposed to miss shots and I’m supposed to fail. Everyone always expects me to do that. It’s OK. I like all the so called pressure. I just want to go out there and show that I belong.”
Just like these new Bulls, perhaps?