Jimmy Butler doesn’t know, and he’s there every day, in the locker room, on the floor, when it’s good and when it’s bad, when the Bulls lost to the last place Lakers and then next game beat the first place Cavaliers, when the Bulls were blown out by the Pistons and then next game beat the Spurs, when the Bulls beat Cleveland on the road and then came home and lost to Denver, and then Friday when the Bulls lost at home to the 76ers and then Sunday went into Milwaukee against the league’s hottest team with 11 wins in the last 13 games and trounced the Bucks 109-94.
The Bulls outrebounded the Bucks 49-34, recording 33 assists, shooting 54.1 percent and making 10 of 21 threes. Butler was terrific with 20 points and a career high 14 assists. Nikola Mirotic continued to light it up with 28 points and eight rebounds with six of nine threes, his second game of 28 points in the last three. Rajon Rondo added 18 points, nine rebounds and nine assists and Robin Lopez had 18 points.
That being the same Lopez who couldn’t make a basket against Philadelphia, the same Rondo who played turnstile to the 76ers guards, the same Mirotic who had two baskets after the first quarter Friday and the same Bulls who were outscored by a starting lineup of mostly second round picks and undrafted players 70-30 inside.
“Everybody I talk to (is confused about it),” Butler conceded about his team. “I live with people who think they know so much about basketball; so I have to sit there and deal with that. I think about it sometimes, like how, why. And there’s no answer for it because you never know what team is going to show up on any given day; it’s sad, but it’s the truth.
“So just go out and play hard,” said Butler, who is showing decisive leadership down the stretch of the season. “When you play hard, sometimes you just get in the way and the ball ends up landing in your hand, you end up taking a charge. I don’t know. When you play hard good things happen. That’s what we need to focus on these last eight (games); play harder than everybody and see where we end up.”
So that’s what it’s come down to for this most schizophrenic of teams, the Bulls despite some of the most woeful losses in years lately, despite losing nine of their last 13 games. They’re now just a half game behind Miami for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls, 35-39, own the tiebreaker with Miami.
This Bulls team is like the guy who asks the girl what she sees in him. She says she’s been asking herself that. Her parents have been asking her that, her friends, the doorman has been asking her that, the mailman, the taxi dispatcher.
To quote Chuck Berry, “C'est la vie, it goes to show you never can tell.”
Perhaps that will be the legacy of this unusual Bulls team, as good as the best and as bad as the worst, capable of brilliance that can quickly dissolve to ineptitude.
“People have been asking, friends,” admitted Mirotic, who is 14 of 21 on threes the last three games. “I don’t know the reason. The mentality, teams like Philly we are thinking we are going to win easy playing at home. But there are no easy games in the NBA. Every time we (need to) set a tone from the beginning, play with physicality. When we play unselfish, sharing the ball we are winning. I think the beginning of these games are huge and once you get the lead build on that lead; it’s on us. When we play hard and we play tough it doesn’t matter; we are enjoying the basketball and then we are scoring.”
That pretty much was the formula Sunday when the Bulls did take a bit of a hit early in the second quarter, falling behind 47-38. The starters got back in and led the Bulls to an 18-8 close to the half and 56-55 Bulls lead. Then that same five that combined to shoot a remarkable 67 percent for the game blew shot down the Bucks with a 21-11 run midway in the third quarter. That gave the Bulls a 91-79 lead after three, and this time they piled on in the fourth quarter behind more Butler to start and bucked the trend of three previous Milwaukee wins.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg suggested, as he has often this season, that Bulls players too often accept their fate.
“When I watch the film a lot of times when we get slapped in the face, punched in the mouth, when the adversity hits us we don’t handle it well,” said Hoiberg. “We talk about it that every game, (that) it will happen at some point. You have to handle adversity and get through. It will determine the outcome of the game. Tonight we did that.
I’m not sure I agree with that; yes, there’s been uncertainty, but it’s seemed a product of so many young players in so many differing and changing roles. Though that’s been the plan of the season, especially since the trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott and with Dwyane Wade injured and out the rest of the season.
But, finally, perhaps mercifully, that seems over. We’ll see what the Bulls have.
The Bulls have been getting knocked out with reserves starting the second and fourth quarters. Hoiberg kept Butler in to open the fourth this time, and Butler was huge with a three that became a four-point play with a Khris Middleton technical for a 96-81 lead with 10:22 left. And then a steal and dunk right after that to effectively end it with nine minutes left. Mirotic later added his sixth three just in case.
The messages haven’t always been clear, but it seems now Hoiberg is going to ride his best. The reserves were outscored 34-15, and defensively have been poor. Cristiano Felicio remained out with a back injury and the Bulls are hopeful for his return Thursday when they host Cleveland. Though with the trades and Wade out, players regarded in the bottom five of the rotation have been getting a lot of minutes. They may not as much these last few weeks.
“Started Jimmy in the fourth quarter to try to get off to a better start,” noted Hoiberg. “He made a couple of good plays, got the steal and the dunk. Then we got those (starters) back in there pretty quickly trying to hold that lead. We were ready to play our guys big minutes tonight and we’ll have to do some of that in these last eight games.”
It’s doubtful the Bulls could get beyond eighth in the East--even if they get that far-but suddenly the Cavs only are in a tie for first with Boston. And there’s those Thursday night TNT Bulls coming up.
This has been a Bucks team blowing out the Bulls three games this season that has been too athletic, too quick. It looked like it would be that way again with a fast start from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 22 points. The Bucks have come on well, but the loss of Jabari Parker has to remain a setback. The Bucks are 37-36 and in a three-way tie with Atlanta and Indiana for fifth through seventh.
They led 31-29 after one quarter, shooting 62 percent, and then blitzed the bench, sending Hoiberg into two timeouts in the first three minutes. Hoiberg has tried to be the good soldier and play as many of the young players as he can. But he got the starters back sooner, and it was a sight for desperate eyes, the ball whisking around, Rondo penetrating and scoring, Lopez back on line, Butler taking advantage of the double teams that have been dropping on him.
“It was really good spacing and ball movement,” said Hoiberg. “Made the right plays, had good passes, 20 assists at halftime. A lot of that was Rajon and Jimmy making the right plays. I thought our pace was really good, but the biggest thing was our guys really played together. That’s what we have to do.”
Mirotic also continued his march through March, making a three in that second quarter run, taking a pass from Rondo for a dunk as it was 56-55 Bulls at halftime. In the eight games back since he was benched and removed from the rotation, Mirotic is starting and averaging a 17.1 points and shooting 51 percent, 44 percent on threes while making almost four per game. His month of March averages are, like his previous two seasons, his best of the season.
“It’s just my month,” said Mirotic. “I don’t know why, but every year I am playing well in March. The guys talk with me before and they want me to play (Butler and Wade urging Hoiberg to use Mirotic more after the benching in Boston). They want me to be there and make my shots. I’ve really figured out that they really need me. I just try to step up and play my best basketball I can. Right now it’s working, but it’s not just about me. It’s all about the team.
Yes, Mirotic is averaging five threes a game the last three games, and that does help.
But it also was the commitment that’s often missing. Not so much giving up when things go bad, but just not playing with passion often enough, not chasing down that loose ball, keeping opponents off the backcourt, challenging shots aggressively. You know, that stuff they talk about in training camp.
“I can actually say that we played some legitimate defense tonight,” said Butler. “We got back in transition. It always helps when you’re making shots, don’t get me wrong, but we came out and stuck to that game plan of getting back. Just continue to play hard; we do that it takes care of itself; and we guarded. Right now is when we need to be playing our best basketball on both ends of the floor, clicking on all cylinders, home or away. No room for error now more than ever. Don’t settle now.”
Of course, that is one game and we have seen this before. The Bulls last won games back to back in February.