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By Sam Smith | 3.12.2015 | 1:17 a.m. CT
And then there were four…
Regulars out for the Bulls, three starters and their top sixth man as Joakim Noah hobbled into Philadelphia as well, sitting out Wednesday’s Bulls game with the 76ers. You almost expected the Bulls to march into the historic onetime American capital with fife and drum and bandages around their heads, like the iconic spirit of ’76 painting.
So it became a game to play carefully; you might say by the Brooks.
“Aaron (Brooks) started making big plays to send it to overtime, and then in overtime Aaron continued to do his thing,” said Pau Gasol. “He made a lot of tough shots, big plays. He got himself going at a critical time when the pressure was on. Then I finally made a couple shots and we got a great win.”
It was 104-95 over the dreadful 76ers led by Gasol with 27 points and 16 rebounds—mostly early—and Brooks’ late game dramatics with 11 points in the fourth quarter, including the game saving three pointer while fading away, off balance and falling left in front of the 76ers’ bench with 33.9 seconds left to tie the game at 92. The Bulls then survived a tough driving attempt, a brutal Tony Snell turnover when he was supposed to hold the ball for a last shot and a Luc Mbah a Moute open 20 foot brick at the regulation buzzer. Mbah a Moute was one of eight at the time and later bewildered 76ers coach Brett Brown said he’d have Mbah a Moute shoot that any time. Having escaped in a game they should have blown giving up a fourth quarter 15-0 76ers run, the Bulls with Brooks taking over as he did when the Bulls went lame in the fourth quarter dominated the overtime with Brooks scoring seven points and the clinching three.
“Just wanted to attack and make the right play,” said Brooks, who had a season-high 31 points. “Much needed. You want to hold the fort down while the guys are out. This team is resilient. It's going to make us better in the long run."
Hardly a great win given the Bulls were mostly outhustled by the “Who is that guy?” 76ers, who were 12 for 25 on free throws and belied the metrics with 11 of 41 threes. The threes aren’t worth more than the twos when you miss so many.
But it was a win, nonetheless, at a time late in the season with fatigue and ennui constant companions, when wins aren’t so easy no matter who you play. Especially if you are the Bulls without Noah, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. The four combine for 57 points, 26 rebounds and 14 assists per game. All were out. But strange stuff can happen around the NBA this time of year.
For example, the Hawks were blown out by the Nuggets, the Thunder lost at home to the Clippers, the Grizzlies lost in Boston and the Hornets lost at home to the Kings. The stretch run isn’t to be taken for granted. Nor are the 76ers, despite falling to 14-50 as they beat the Hawks and Wizards in the last month.
The Bulls barely ended their three-game losing streak and moved to 40-26 and 20-12 on the road, the latter slightly better than their home record. It left the Bulls with 16 games left in the regular season sitting third in the Eastern Conference, a game over slumping Toronto and three over Washington.
“I thought our guys battled,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “To be shorthanded like that… I watched their (76ers) Atlanta game (win), their Oklahoma City game (overtime loss). They’re playing very well. I’m pleased we were able to come out with the win. We have a lot of guys out; try to find a way to scratch out wins, hold the fort until we can get some guys back and go from there. We’re heading down the stretch now. Every game is critical. You’d like to have everyone out there so you are building your rhythm, but it’s not the case for us; it hasn’t been the case all year. So whoever we have, let’s go.”
It’s unclear if the Bulls merely decided to rest Noah after four games in five days with three road games this week concluding in Oklahoma City Sunday. Or if Noah’s surgically repaired knee proved troublesome. The Bulls then close with nine of their last 14 games against teams with losing records. Though Wednesday’s victory suggests that doesn’t matter much given the uncertainty of the closing stretch when teams with losing records, like even the 76ers, can prove nettlesome given their relaxed play. After all, if the 76ers shot just 50 percent on free throws they would have won in regulation.
“Just not feeling great," Noah said before the game. "Just got to use the next couple days to recover and get my body feeling right. We've been playing a lot of games. I don't think it's a big roadblock. I have to listen to my body and I'll use the next couple days to be ready."
Butler and Gibson remained out, but they traveled with the team. It’s likely one and perhaps both will return in the next week or two. Rose said before Monday’s game he planned to return this season and the belief is he will be playing the beginning of April. But it’s, as the Bulls often have said the last three years, next man up and all that.
This time it would be Brooks standing the tallest. Though listed at six foot and 161 pounds, let’s say that would be rounding up.
Brooks is an uncanny shot maker with a surfeit of unconventional attempts the way he can curl himself around much taller men, which about everyone in the NBA is. He’s been the team’s most accurate three-point shooter most of the season. But he’s slumped since being called upon to start after Rose’s knee surgery. In his eight starts before Wednesday, Brooks was 36 for 112 for 32 percent overall and nine for 37 on threes, 24 percent. This is not your savior sort of stuff.
But Gasol, getting his league-leading and career best 44th double/double early in the game, was wearing down as he would play almost 44 minutes. Tony Snell was having a tough game with seven turnovers and two of nine shooting, though he had 10 rebounds. Nikola Mirotic starting for Noah was five of 13. He had 16 points and 12 rebounds, but he also was breathing heavy as he couldn’t finish shots late and was being called for offensive fouls. Still, it looked good for the Bulls. They led 79-65 with 9:44 left. But the 76ers with the Bulls stale ran off 15 straight points for an 80-79 lead with 6:12 left. That was fast, and the Bulls looked lost.
And not like anyone figured Brooks could do much about it. He’d missed a pair of jumpers and both free throws in that 15-0 76ers run.
“We had success with (the) pick and roll, going at the bigs,” said Brooks. “So that’s where it was at today.”
It was at all sorts of places as Brooks dribbled up the floor and kept going for a layup that started a run of eight of the next 10 Bulls points for an 89-85 Bulls lead with 2:53 as the 76ers kept admiring those long threes. But it was the 76ers on the boards for second shots (15 rebounds each for Nerlens Noel and Thomas Robinson) and then a step back three from Ish Smith with 23 points to get within 89-88 with 2:21 left.
Gasol got stripped going up, but E’Twaun Moore got the turnover back on defense. Gasol missed again, the 76ers lost the ball on a drive, Gasol missed yet again with the fatigue obvious. The Bulls fouled Smith on a drive, and he made both. Now they’re making them? Snell wasn’t close on a runner and the 76ers were fouled again. Jerami Grant made both for a 92-89 76ers lead with 43 seconds left.
Brooks then made that unlikeliest of threes going hard to his right to tie the game. The Bulls then survived the last 33.2 seconds without a shot attempt.
The Bulls never trailed in the overtime after Brooks took a Gasol screen on the right wing and went all the way for a layup and 94-92 Bulls lead. Gasol finally made a straightaway jumper and a layup on a pass from Brooks, and then Brooks closed it out with another three with 1:03 left.
“You’ve just got to do whatever it takes,” said Gasol.
With just 10 players in uniform and with their 20th different starting lineup, the Bulls went to Gasol early and often against the smaller 76ers. Gasol had 14 points and six rebounds in the first quarter, though the Bulls 12-4 start slowed to 22-22 after one quarter. Mirotic took over for the Bulls in the second quarter with 12 points while Doug McDermott has a good start but didn’t play much after that despite seven points in 10 minutes. It was tied at 51 at halftime. The third quarter was a symphony of missed notes as the 76ers failed to score in their first 12 possessions—and not because of defense—while the Bulls could muster just six points when the opening was there to end the game against a team of mostly role players.
Mike Dunleavy banked in a 50 footer at the end of the third quarter to give the Bulls a 72-63 lead, which seemed enough against this 76ers team. It certainly did after an excellent sequence from Kirk Hinrich, who came back for a big defensive rebound with the bigs starting to give up second shots and then made a drive and three pointer for that 14-point fourth quarter Bulls lead. Which soon was gone and had the Bulls twisted like a salted pretzel before Aaron would brook no defeat.
“We're shorthanded and we just got done playing four games in five nights,” noted Gasol. “A lot of handicaps, but we got it done and that gives us confidence.”