When after a tightly contested, frenzied game with opportunities lost each way, like in Saturday’s New Orleans 96-90 overtime win over the Bulls, one needs a phlegmatic, controlled presence for analysis. Of course, it was left to DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins.
“I feel like they’re a better team than their record shows,” said the Pelicans center who had 25 points and 11 rebounds to go along with partner Anthony Davis’ 27 points and 16 rebounds. “They’re probably top three hardest playing teams in the league at this point. To have a record like that and still come out and play with the tenaciousness and the edge that they do, it’s all credit to them. They’re a lot better team than their record shows, and I think we pulled out a tough win.”
Actually, well said. Who knew?
It perhaps wasn’t an artistic or efficient game for teams both playing the second of back to back sets after traveling late Friday night to Chicago, the Bulls after their win in Orlando. So a 38-38 first half tie wasn’t all that surprising, the teams combining for five of 30 on first half threes.
It wasn’t much more appealing in the end, the Bulls 11 of 42 on threes and New Orleans nine of 31. The Bulls shot a disconcerting 35.4 percent led by Justin Holiday with 18 points and Denzel Valentine off the bench with a season high 16. Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez each had 14 points, though Markkanen suffered through his poorest shooting game with two of 11 on threes. Jerian Grant, however, had his best overall game with 13 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and zero turnovers to solidify his hold on the starting point guard spot. Kris Dunn struggled with the ball again, committing four turnovers in 17 minutes while shooting two of nine.
And it was Grant who looked like he’d made the winning play with about 10 seconds left in regulation in a tie game after the Bulls had trailed most of the second half and by six with about five minutes left. But Valentine, shooting the best he has as a Bull, and Markkanen finally finding the range each made a pair of threes bookended with another fierce Bulls defensive effort. It would be the third consecutive game the Bulls allowed fewer than 100 points.
And suddenly the Bulls were in position to sweep the back to back.
Grant with about 30 seconds left in a tie game overplayed and helped, wrestling the ball away from Cousins for a steal. The officials appeared to miss the 10,000th career foul on Cousins based in his reaction. Grant dribbled up, got a switch with Cousins on him and then beat Cousins off the dribble to the basket. Cousins trailed with Davis closing. Grant has been hesitant much of this season trying to be the setup man. But he didn’t pause in drawing the defense deep into the lane.
He got near the basket and then passed back to Lopez cutting in behind him for what looked like an easy layup and the lead with mere seconds left. Lopez, who isn’t the most graceful, caught the ball on the run with Grant having occupied both Cousins and Davis. Davis, of course, reacted. But it seemed to late. Seemed, anyway. Lopez’ scoop layup missed, but Lopez followed it up. Again, stunningly, Lopez’ point blank follow for the lead with 9.7 seconds left rolled off the rim.
“I missed two shots,” Lopez said evenly in taking the blame for the loss, which everyone pretty much rejected given the poor shooting and other curiosities. “That’s frustrating. I needed to finish that. Jerian found me in some great situations. I was missing shots all game, but those were big shots.
The Bulls would have yet another chance when the Pelicans setting up for a winner curiously got a 22 footer from the right wing from Jrue Holiday that came up short. This after Davis had tied the game at 83 on a lob pass from Jrue Holiday as Markkanen repeatedly had trouble finding Davis on those roll plays.
“I made a couple of big defensive mistakes,” Markkanen acknowledged. “The lob that tied the game. I need to learn from it. We competed well and we gave ourselves a chance to win, but we didn’t make the right plays in the end.”
But there was one more chance with 2.1 seconds left after the Jrue Holiday miss.
Grant was inbounding in front of the Pelicans bench. The play was a double screen by Markkanen and Lopez with Holiday coming from the left wing. Valentine was underneath popping out on top. But the Pelicans countered it well with not-so-great Bulls execution. Holiday appeared to get slowed brushing into Lopez, who then rolled inside. But Markkanen instead of creating space brought Davis inside to the lane where Lopez was rolling, resulting in a double team with Davis and Cousins on Lopez. Valentine didn’t get out on top quickly enough and was covered, so Grant threw inside to Lopez. He caught it, but Cousins stripped the ball away to send the game into overtime.
“We’ll take that shot out of Robin every day of the week,” said Hoiberg. “He had two shots he’s going to make 99 out of 100 times. Unfortunately, they didn’t go down, but he’s a warrior. He battled two of the toughest guys out there all night long playing 42-plus minutes. Proud of the guys for going out and competing. The last play Denzel was supposed to come off a down screen with two seconds left. If they switch, Robin was going to slip out of it and go to the rim with Lauri getting in the left corner. They collapsed on Robin. We didn’t set a good screen for Denzel, but still had a chance. Robin got it clean and just couldn’t get it up.”
And that was about all the Bulls had left.
The Pelicans never trailed in the overtime after Cousins opened with free throws and Davis slammed in a Cousins high/low pass. It would be a tough continuation for a frustrated Lopez with in the overtime an offensive foul, a missed five footer, a turnover on a drive and fouling Cousins shooting a three pointer. The Bulls were two of nine overall and zero for five on threes in the overtime.
“I went three for 10 on wide open three-point shots; can’t do that,” said Holiday. “I missed baskets I should make, Lauri missed threes he usually makes; that’s the way a basketball game is; it’s not perfect. That’s why we like to do this, why it’s so exciting. If everybody made everything they are supposed to make, it would be boring. Rolo can’t take that (blame). He played great for us defensively, rebounding.”
It was, as Cousins accurately observed, another aggressive game from the Bulls that belies the expectations. They defended Cousins and Davis as well as any have and thwarted a competent offensive team. They did lose David Nwaba early with a sprained ankle and he could miss games. But they were relentless, if not as accomplished. The Bulls fell to 2-6 in a season they understand they cannot always measure in the standings.
“It just shows our season,” said Holiday. “What this team has to do is fight all year. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we are comfortable in that situation, the better we are going to be. I think we are starting to get to that point where we are just going to have to fight. The time when the shots (don’t) fall for us for a consistent amount of time it’s going to be tough. We have to be comfortable with that (lack of wins); at the end of the day, why get down on yourself? What are we here to do? Play to win and become the best team we can be. So you have to go through this. There are teams that haven’t been great in the past; the Warriors hadn’t been great a long time, but continue to press through and play and now look where they are. This is going to make us a better team. This is going to set this foundation for us and I hope sooner than later.”