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By Sam Smith | 3.06.2015 | 3:32 a.m. CT
It had to be a movie. Indiana kid; not thought of that highly, never much gets into the games. Works and works and works. Gains the admiration of everyone, but it seems for nothing. So he works harder. Then the big guys get hurt and they look down the bench and have tried just about everyone else. So they tell the kid to get in there. Do something about the other team’s big star, who is slaughtering our guys, and, oh, by the way, if the team is losing by a point with about two seconds left against one of the hottest teams in the league, well, make that shot and win it for us.
“It’s a natural instinct,” said Bulls very deep reserve guard from East Chicago, E’Twaun Moore, whose three pointer with 2.1 seconds left carried the Bulls to perhaps their best and most exciting win of the season, 108-105 over the Oklahoma Thunder. “I’ve been playing basketball for a long time. It’s not brand new to me. I’m always ready.
“It (inbounds play with 4.9 seconds left) wasn’t for me,” said Moore, whose 19 points was not only a career high but his first double digit scoring game of the season. “It was for Pau (Gasol). He just kicked it out; read the play. It was a touch pass, he read (the double team). That’s what smart players do. He trusted me to knock down the shot.
“I had my eyes on it the whole time,” Moore said with a satisfied grin. “I was, ‘Please, please go in,’ and it fell for me. I was just staying with it.”
As did the Bulls with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson out injured. And trailing by 16 points in the first half and by nine with 5:11 remaining to the streaking Thunder with the incendiary Russell Westbrook, who scored 43 points along with eight rebounds and seven assists coming off four triple doubles.
But the Bulls, a season best 16 games over .500 at 39-23, got not only Moore’s first career game winner but:
- 26 points from rookie Nikola Mirotic, his third consecutive game leading the team in scoring and averaging almost 13 points per game in just the fourth quarters of those games. Mirotic was 14 of 16 from the free throw line Thursday in the national TNT game, including eight of 10 in the fourth quarter when he and Moore scored 27 of the Bulls’ 36 points to overtake Oklahoma City. Given the level of production and the importance of the games compared with other rookies, Mirotic should again be in the Rookie of the Year discussion. “I was taking a lot of shots in Europe, important shots,” noted Mirotic, who played in several European championships. “Here is different, you are new guy. My teammates, they have confidence in me, coach too. So they run plays for me. I just need to score on these shots. I’m playing with confidence, so why not (take the shots).”
- 21 points and 12 rebounds for a league leading 40th double/double from Pau Gasol, who made the game winning play with a quick thinking touch pass to Moore almost instantly on Mike Dunleavy’s inbounds pass. The Bulls set up the play trailing 105-104 to Gasol, and he reacted instinctively to Moore for the dramatic winner that sent the United Center crowd into delirium. “I was just trying to get good position, catch the ball. The play was designed for me to catch it. I was just trying to get good position so there wasn’t a deflection or anything and then make a play. I read that Westbrook came and over helped. If Westbrook didn’t come as much, I would look at the weak side. It was a quick read. I saw E’Twaun wide open, quick instincts, good basketball play. It shows the depth of this team, the hunger of these players ready to play. Given the opportunity, they showed what they are capable of; it’s a good sign for us. I think there are a lot of positives going on right now.”
- 12 rebounds, nine assists and four points from an energized Joakim Noah, who was literally bouncing up and down on the sidelines when he wasn’t in the game, exchanging chest bumps and shouts of glee that seemed to have awakened the Bulls. Noah also led the final trap that forced Westbrook into a stepping-out-of-bounds turnover with 1.2 seconds left to effectively end the game. “Great, felt so good; that felt really good,” enthused Noah, his headphone volume post game turned up so high the music reverberated around the locker room. “It’s been an up and down year; you definitely need the basketball gods on your side. I’m not going to lie; it feels great. Great pass by Pau, great trust, trusting your teammate. Pau made the right play. He’s somebody who’s played in a lot of these close, big games and I’m really happy he made the right play. This is fun. You see the way the young boys are stepping up, Niko stepping up, the way Snelly Cat (Tony Snell) is stepping up. It’s everybody; every night it’s going to be somebody different and that’s the way we‘ve got to see it. We’ve just got to stay humble and stay hungry and we know when the playoffs come, when the games get really intense we need all our guys and obviously we need these guys to come back. But you never know. These injuries may be a blessing in disguise; guys can rest a little bit and come back fresh and ready to go for when it hits the fan.”
- 21 points and three of six threes from Mike Dunleavy, who cracked about a missed first half dunk: “I was trying to reset the shot clock. I got that accomplished.” Added Dunleavy as the Bulls three-point shooters are starting to expand with seven of 25 Thursday: “Just what we do. Keep hanging in there, keep chipping away, keep making plays, and you just never know what can happen at the end of the game. Like tonight, guy like E’Twaun comes in and makes a big shot. He played great all night long, defended Westbrook about as well as you can defend him. That’s what you do, stick around and give yourself a chance.”
The Bulls did that in an unlikely game against a roaring hot fire of a team even without Kevin Durant. They’d won nine of 11 with the furious Westbrook playing better than anyone in the NBA, a hot shooting Serge Ibaka with 25 points and a team desperate in going for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference after so many early season injuries. This against a Bulls team not given much hope with three of their top six players out, even though they were coming off a good home win over Washington. But this was the roaring Thunder of the tough Western Conference. And now the Bulls, by the way, have defeated every Western Conference team this season.
“It shows you (expert) guys don’t know much,” Noah said playfully. “That’s the beauty of sports. You guys can analyze the game and talk about what’s going to happen before the game and pregame talk and talk and talk. But you don’t know.”
It’s why we all watch and why we come back and why in the most unlikely ways and at the most unexpected moments, something special and wonderful can happen that makes you swell with pride and can’t wait to come back for more. Sport, and especially the NBA, delivers those sort of memorable moments and stories, the trials and tribulations played out on a grand stage, their stories featured more loudly than yours, but similar in the need to overcome disappointment, to ignore being overlooked and know your time will come and all the work will eventually pay off. It has to.
It did Thursday for Moore, one of the more positive and upbeat people around the Bulls, always with a smile, a positive word and no less effort than anyone else even as he’s rarely played, 13 combined minutes in the last nine games.
“He was tremendous throughout the game, defense, offense, shot making, playmaking, hustle plays,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Moore. “The way E’Twaun competed on every play goes a long way. You can’t say enough about E’Twaun. You guys don’t see him everyday like we do. He comes in early and stays late. He is always prepared. Doesn’t matter if you play him two seconds in a game, 10 minutes, 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter. He is always ready. It is a credit to him.”
And a credit to Thibodeau as well. It’s been a difficult season for him as well with all the rumors floating around regarding his tenure and the spate of injuries and rehabilitations. But Thibodeau continues to expand his roster and options, his handling of the team exceptional in the wake of the injuries as he trusted as his players did. Moore was rolling, and as Thibodeau always says, if you produce you play. Thibodeau stood by his words and put Moore in position to make the biggest play of his pro career. That sort of confidence can inspire a team.
It hardly seemed as if that sort of event might occur as the Thunder hit the Bulls with bolts of Westbrook to start as he had 10 points in the first quarter. He kept finding Ibaka for pick and pop jumpers that had the Bulls flummoxed and in a 30-18 hole after one quarter.
“We started slowly, but we kept grinding our way through the game,” said Thibodeau.
It seemed more like the Bulls were to be ground up as the Thunder increased the lead to 37-21 to open the second quarter. But Thibodeau found something working with Noah and his back door passing and Moore and Mirotic doing the scoring. They led the Bulls on a 16-4 run with Moore replacing Tony Snell on Westbrook and playing him more physically and effectively. Though mild mannered, Moore plays with an unusual brand of confidence and bravado and doesn’t shy from big plays—as everyone found out later—despite little such experience. It also was typical of Moore, said those around him who know him best, that his tweet about the game later on was not about his shot but the return from cancer treatments of TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager. Moore called it the highlight of the night.
The Bulls during the game celebrated Sager, from west suburban Batavia, with a gift of a team colors sport coat. And then gave him something to talk about.
“Heck of a basketball game,” agreed Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Oklahoma City then looked like they’d put it away as Westbrook absolutely torched the Bulls in a Jordanesque—and I don’t say that lightly—third quarter with 19 points and 79-72 lead. The Thunder led by 10 about four minutes into the fourth quarter, which is when these kinds of games have slipped away from the Bulls when shorthanded. But Dunleavy passed ahead, which the Bulls are starting to do a bit more (18 fast break points) for a Noah dunk, Moore hit a runner and a pull up and Mirotic was bulling his way to the basket (eight of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter) and the Bulls were back in it.
Mirotic continues to be a revelation. Just about whenever he gets regular playing time, he’s proven excellent, a good three-point shooter with an uncanny ability to get to the basket and create contact, perhaps better than anyone on the team. And for a rookie, albeit an experienced one.
“Today shots from three point line (didn’t fall at two of nine); was trying to penetrate to get some advantage,” said Mirotic, who is nursing a shoulder injury. “I just play simple basketball. Good thing my teammates find me. I am missing shots, but I am playing with confidence. I don’t want to stop. I want to give more and keep playing at high level. We didn’t shoot well the ball tonight, but we find a way from our defense, rebound, fast break.
“I am learning sometimes when I get a rebound I push the ball. I am trying to show how I can play and my confidence is at a high level,” said Mirotic, who is looking like a future All-Star. “I don’t want to stop; tomorrow I want to play another game. But for me the most important, we won the game and doesn’t matter make 30 points. Team lose nothing happens (worth talking about).”
The Bulls drew within 100-99 with 2:16 left on a Mirotic run out and foul, making both free throws. It looked bad for the Bulls when Enes Kanter put back a second Westbrook free throw for a 103-99 Thunder lead with 1:03 left. But Mirotic answered immediately with a three on a pass from Dunleavy to get within one with a minute left. Westbrook isolated and scored on a jumper, though with Moore guarding him in the fourth quarter Westbrook was two of nine and according to ESPN statistics Westbrook had four of his five turnovers when Moore defended him.
Westbrook’s jumper made it 105-102 Thunder with 37.9 seconds left. Mirotic was fouled and made two pressure free throws again and then Moore hounded Westbrook into a airball and 24-second violation with 4.9 seconds left. A last gasp chance for the Bulls.
“Before we came out of the huddle we didn’t know if they’d double team,” said Moore. “Just happened to read it and it played out like that. I was aware of the time management. I knew we only had four seconds. If he kicked it out, I knew there was not much time left. Just shot it with confidence.”
“Phenomenal shot,” added Dunleavy. “Pau was the option we were looking for down low to get the guy sealed; sent two to him, E'Twaun was open, stepped up and made a huge shot. Great to see. He’s made some big plays for us, hit some big free throws for us earlier this season. For a guy who doesn’t play that much he’s professional, always prepared and deserves all the credit he gets tonight. He’s all about the team, like a lot of guys here. Fits right in.”
“Shows a lot of these guys show a lot of professionalism,” said Noah. “You don’t really see that with a lot of young guys; a lot of guys are probably frustrated, not playing early in the season and you never see them (complaining); instead, putting in that extra time working. Your time will come; it’s a long year. It’s one thing to talk about, but to actually do it day in and day out. Guys stepped up, E’Twaun, Snelly Cat; Dougie’s (McDermott) coming, I know it. Not just trust, but sacrifice. You have to sacrifice for one another. And enjoy the process, too. This is fun. Winning is bigger than anything.”
Just now trying to write that happy ending.