The Bulls Wednesday, in this season’s premier home showcase game, showed they were a good team, a season highest scoring first quarter and nearly so by halftime, Nikola Mirotic superb with 24 points off the bench and three steals, Kris Dunn and Robin Lopez with 16 each, six players scoring in double figures and David Nwaba with biting defense. But the Golden State Warriors with an absorbing 119-112 victory showed the Bulls they weren’t quite good enough.
“We were trying to match them at their game,” said Zach LaVine, who did dunk for the first time, but had his first difficult game in his return with five points on two of 12 shooting. “As much as we tried, the fact is that team is best at it, the gold standard. You can’t play that game with them. You have to get some stops and we have to make some shots. Credit them; they did their job. We fought back, the best thing about us. We are never going to stop playing and made it a game at the end.”
It didn’t appear like it would be following a brilliant track meet first half in which the Bulls led 66-63, 24 minutes of basketball awash in exceptions, the Bulls putting the decisive run on the Warriors, a 17-0 gambit linking the first and second quarters, the Bulls players led by Mirotic forcing the Bay Area kids to serve up the whine. At least to the officials.
“Mirotić played amazing tonight,” said Stephen Curry, whose 30 points with 38 from backcourt mate Klay Thompson proved just a little too much. “Shooting the ball well, good pressure on defense. He adds a different element. We have to try to switch and communicate on defense to make sure we cover him. I think his presence really feeds down to the rest of that lineup because everyone knows they’ll get opportunities. Defensively, they were just scrappy. Thankfully, we made enough shots in the third to give ourselves a cushion.”
Just one bad stretch — well, very bad — for the Bulls, as it turned out, a 32-12 Warriors third quarter, seven minutes for the Bulls and a dozen shots without a score and thus a 17-point Warriors lead after three quarters. But this time there would be no rest for the champs working on their 14 straight road win. Lauri Markkanen with 24 seconds left in the game had a good look at a three with the Bulls trailing 117-112. Potential one possession game, and all that. Alas, the shot missed badly and the Warriors added another notch up to 37-9; the Bulls are 17-28.
“After we dug a 10-point (first quarter) hole, we were unbelievable after that,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Flying that thing up the floor. Played with an unbelievable amount of energy, held that team to 25 in the second quarter. Came out flat in the third. That was the difference in the game. There was spirit (at halftime) in the locker room. But we came out and they hit three threes right away. Then we lost our spirit. It’s like we got deflated. These guys pounce on you. When they smell blood, there’s nobody better. But even down the stretch it’s a five-point game, we get an open three from our guy who has probably shot as well as anybody at crunch time and, unfortunately, didn’t go in.
“We had a 12-point third (quarter) and gave them 32 and still had a chance,” Hoiberg noted. “Niko was unbelievable. Kris Dunn got it going for us, unfortunately, before the injury. But, that’s how it’s got to be. We played three quarters of really good basketball. But you take one off against a team like this and you’re not going to win.”
It’s the stuff of champions; they find a way.
The Bulls, however, finally had a lot of answers after that 49-point loss to the Warriors in November.
That was then, and this has been a different Bulls team with Mirotic and LaVine back, Dunn growing into his point guard role.
He’ll be doing so with perhaps a crooked smile for awhile after an ugly fall with 2:52 remaining in the game after the Bulls had cut a 106-90 Golden State lead with 7:40 left to 112-107 with 2:55. Dunn had just come up behind a driving Thompson for his third steal and headed out ahead of everyone. He may shoot a layup next time.
Dunn went up for the dunk, the Bulls on a 17-6 run and, maybe, just maybe they could pull off the upset. Dunn was rolling in that stretch with three other scores, a pair of drives and short jumpers and a three. Dunn went up two handed, the United Center crowd erupting at the possibilities. But Dunn hung too long. He slipped off the rim and landed face down, literally taking a chunk out of the United Center floor, Hoiberg drawing gasps from the press room staff when he related that afterward.
Dunn stayed down, his upper lip cut, his mouth filled with blood. Dunn finally was able to walk off with the help of trainer Jeff Tanaka and team physicians, obviously not able to return.
The Bulls later reported Dunn had “chipped and dislocated” front teeth. He did not have a concussion. LaVine, who had concluded his allotted playing time, went back to the locker room with Dunn and delivered his own amateur evaluation.
Thompson with those season high 38 points drove for a 114-107 lead and then Justin Holiday missed a too quick three. Kevin Durant, who had a quiet game with 19 points as Mirotic throttled him well with aggressive defense, lost Mirotic on a switch, drove and was fouled for a three-point play and 117-107 Warriors lead with 1:57 left.
But like the Pinkertons in the old Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie, perhaps the Warriors were asking who were these Bulls guys. They just would not go away.
Denzel Valentine, who became the facilitator without Dunn and had 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, found Markkanen for a three from the left wing. Durant missed a three and Valentine pushed up, Markkanen with another three. It missed. But Nwaba was everywhere, grabbing the rebound in yet another hustling sequence that symbolized the game for the Bulls.
Nwaba pitched out to Markkanen with the Warriors scrambling to pick up the shooters, the Warriors maybe the league’s best the way they close out so quickly. Markkanen passed to Holiday. He took a dribble step inside and passed to Mirotic. He lined up a three and then passed to Valentine in the left corner for a three. His shot missed, but Valentine saved it going out of bounds and passed out where Markkanen grabbed it and passed to Holiday for a right corner three. That missed, but Mirotic was there to tip in the miss to cut the Golden State lead to 117-112 with 50 seconds left.
“I thought Niko was terrific all game long,” said Hoiberg. “I thought he and Bobby (Portis with 12 points in 17 minutes) had terrific plays in their two-man game. Those two guys have played well together for the most part all year.”
Curry dribbled slowly out of the backcourt with Nwaba pressuring him. Perhaps Nwaba could have played more given he was by far the best on Curry. But there’s so much scoring required to keep up with the Warriors and it was the second most minutes Nwaba had played in the last 10 games.
The Bulls pressured the Warriors into a tough inside pass that went off the Bulls and then Nwaba stripped Curry driving to the basket. Valentine took it up and dropped the ball off to an open Markkanen, who aired out a rare air ball miss for him, giving Golden State the ball with a five-point lead with 21.7 seconds left. At least the Bulls made Golden State take a timeout with under 24 seconds left to maintain control. They did.
“We’ve shown how good a team we can be when we play a complete game,” said Holiday. “We’ve shown how good a team we can be when we don’t. We tighten up defensively, that’s the thing we need to understand. The same way every time no matter who we are playing, not just because we are playing the Warriors. When we get that consistency, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”
The Bulls looked like a pretty good team in the first quarter even falling behind 32-20 after Lopez opened the Bulls scoring with consecutive power dunks. On the first, Warriors rookie Jordan Bell sprained an ankle and didn’t play afterward. Draymond Green was out with an alleged shoulder problem. Markkanen got a driving Curry for a block early. But the Warriors looked like they wouldn’t miss for awhile. Then with the Bulls reserves coming in — a 56-26 edge for the game — the Bulls scored the last 10 points of the first quarter with an impressive close. Nwaba forced Curry into a traveling turnover playing Curry aggressively over a screen and then did an excellent job staying in front of Curry’s dribbling show, Curry left to hand off for a Nick Young miss.
Then with the Warriors inbounding with 7.8 seconds left in the first quarter in a 38-38 tie, Nwaba pressured Curry full court and Curry lost the ball. He tried to save it back, but Mirotic cut in front, knocked the ball to the corner and then ran it down and saved it. Mirotic the lasered a pass inside for a Nwaba dunk and 40-38 Bulls lead after one quarter.
The Bulls kept up the pressure, taking a 45-38 lead finishing that 17-0 run. Anyone else hit the Warriors 17-0? Golden State shot back to a lead, but the Bulls again went on top. Dunn stole a Shaun Livingston pass and eased to LaVine for his first dunk as a Bull, a simple long armed throw down.
“I feel I’ve played free,” LaVine reported about his initial three-game stretch. “Haven’t had any setbacks or anything I need to worry about. Still feel quick, explosive, still able to dunk. I was happy to get an easy one. I was missing some shots and I finally got an easy breakaway and I wanted to do something on it, a little something special. But I was so tired; two points are two points. I’ll have a lot more opportunities to get some oohs and aaah out there. Next time I’ll do something flashy on the break.”
LaVine said he expected to get his playing time increased with the Bulls in Atlanta Saturday.
After that dunk, it was a pair of Mirotic scores, the second a three after Mirotic frustrated Durant on defense and when Durant didn’t get a foul call and stopped to complain, Mirotic hustled out for the three pointer and 57-46 Bulls second quarter lead. And though the Warriors kept coming with Curry and Thompson on target with all 13 of the Warriors threes in the game, the Bulls held that 66-63 halftime lead.
Then it was a six for 24 Bulls third quarter, zero for seven on threes as Curry and Thompson combined for 22 points and six threes in the third quarter.
“We lost our minds out there,” lamented Hoiberg. “We weren’t hitting shots, then we couldn’t get back to get matched up. We relaxed.”
Alas, another blowout. But, no, Portis and Mirotic combined for a 10-2 Bulls fourth quarter start and it was game on again; just not enough game for the Bulls.
“We balled back,” said LaVine. “Niko made incredible plays down the stretch, Kris before he got hurt making big plays, Lauri, David with his energy. So we fight. You have to compete with them and you have to play extremely well on defense, sustain runs and counter their runs. We gave ourselves a chance to win at the end even though we made some mistakes. So you have to give credit to us, but also credit to them for sticking through those runs.”
The Bulls aren’t there, but they may know where they are going.