Bulls take down the Pelicans, 117-110

There was “the Shot,” and “the Layup,” and now to add to Bulls lore in Sunday’s Bulls 117-110 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, there was “the Block.”

It was—you’re probably not going to believe this—Paul Zipser to the rescue. Rescuing the Bulls on the verge of blowing a 19-point fourth quarter lead, rescuing Jimmy Butler, who carried the Bulls through three quarters with 37 of his 39 points, rescuing perhaps the playoffs as the Bulls suddenly moved solidly into seventh place in the Eastern Conference by a game plus the tiebreakers over both trailing Miami and Indiana.

“Paul Zipser makes a great defensive play at the rim,” noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “A true team effort today.”

It truly was all team with 21 points and 11 rebounds off the bench from Bobby Portis, 15 points from Joffrey Lauvergne, and 10 points, nine rebounds and nine assists from Rajon Rondo, who came up with a big defensive play against Pelicans star Anthony Davis just before Zipser’s big defensive play. Which was quite a bit after Nikola Mirotic’s big defensive play, blocking a Davis drive and later blocking shots by Tim Frazier and Solomon Hill on the same possession in the third quarter. Hey, they’re starters.

Yes, the Bulls rode the suffocating and timely defense of Rajon Rondo, Nikola Mirotic and Paul Zipser to victory.

Really, there is no way this is happening.

But with Miami, Indiana, Atlanta and Milwaukee all losing Sunday, suddenly the Bulls are the hot team in the East and in their best playoff position in two years. They’ve won four straight, five of six and six of eight and are 38-39. It turns out the season is just too short. Just give them 20 more regular season games and who knows.

Yes, that sounds ridiculous, though perhaps less than Paul Zipser saving you with defense.

Here was the situation: Butler was worn out. He’d played brilliantly after going 43 minutes for 33 points in Saturday’s win over Atlanta. Now he was heading to 39 minutes with little left, zero for six shooting in the fourth quarter in Jimmy time. He’d helped assure the Bulls the advantage in a game in which they’d never trail with 25 points in the first half and another dozen in the third quarter.

“That second quarter was unbelievable,” Hoiberg said about Butler’s perfect five of five shooting with a pair of threes. “Shooting from all over the floor, the rhythm that he had going. I thought our guys did a great job of finding him and he (was) rising up and shooting it like there is nobody else in the gym. It was a great performance to get us going, get us a nice lead at halftime.”

Butler also feels obligated to finish, but it was understandable he had little left.

The Pelicans with 30 points from Davis and 26 from DeMarcus Cousins were coming fast. Give Hoiberg some credit. He went with some of the most unlikely lineups, and they came through. Lauvergne swished a trio of three pointers in the quarter and had a crucial putback of a Butler miss. Portis had a gigantic three with about five minutes left after three straight Bulls misses. And then Butler figured maybe he could close it with 50 seconds left and the Bulls leading 113-107.

He faced up to drive on Hill, but Jrue Holiday came to double and blocked Butler as he went up, gathered in the ball and was off running on a two-on-one fast break with Jordan Crawford. Only Zipser was back. Who even expected anyone to be back? But these are not your father’s Bulls. You know, from January.

Holiday came cruising in down the left side with Zipser backpeddling down the lane. Crawford was in the lane on the right side. Holiday, who has been an All-Star, probably didn’t even know who Zipser was. So he drove in strong and hesitated as he went up and even leaned back a little for space. Zipser timed it perfectly, stayed straight to avoid the contact and got the block clean, knocking the ball into the backboard. Rondo retrieved the ball, dribbled out and was fouled.

It’s difficult to recall the last time Zipser even played any significant stretch in the fourth quarter, yet closing, and in a close game, and one so meaningful this late in the season.

The Bulls inbounded the ball with 34.6 seconds left, and then again with 29.7 seconds left after a timeout. Butler then dribbled toward the right baseline, where he made his first basket of the fourth quarter with 19.7 seconds left to assure the victory.

No offense to anyone, but this is getting even difficult to figure.

The guys making plays in the fourth quarter for the Bulls Sunday, barely 24 hours after sweating out Atlanta back home, are players who have spent big parts of the season not even in the rotation. And though, yes, the Pelicans are 33-44, this was Lauvergne, Zipser, Portis holding off arguably the two best big men in the NBA in Davis and Cousins.

“With Dwyane (Wade) going out of the lineup, Jimmy had to step up his game even more,” said Hoiberg. “I give Rondo a lot of credit as well. Niko has had some really good moments since we inserted him back in the starting lineup and Bobby stepped in tonight like he has several times this year. Lauvergne was excellent for us hitting timely shots to keep them at bay. I’m proud of the guys for stepping up, especially our young guys; they’ve gotten this great opportunity to go out and play.

It certainly is, even if none of us really know who they are. Because this group these last few weeks looks nothing like the uncertain, occasionally feuding, stagnant, defensively casual group that was often so painful to watch. This group led by Butler and Rondo with varying contributions throughout the lineup (46 bench points Sunday) and deft moves by Hoiberg has, unexpectedly, been the team to make a move from the Eastern Conference traffic jam.

It would have seemed unlikely after losing Wade nine games ago. But it seems finally to be a team utilizing its pieces.

With Rondo pushing the ball and Butler playing more in the flow of the offense and shooters like Mirotic and Denzel Valentine spreading out the opposing defense, the Bulls now have made double figure threes a franchise record seven straight games. They were 13 of 26 Sunday. They had 26 assists and now have at least 20 assists in the last 11 games, the best run of the season. In that stretch, they are averaging 27 assists per game. That’s about six more per game since then.

The Bulls had a 14-2 edge Sunday in second chance points, though that’s also because Cousins doesn’t hustle much. But the Bulls also had a whopping 32 fast break points to 12 for the Pelicans. The pace, space and shots have been there. In the last 10 games, the previously somnambulant Bulls are averaging more than 16 fast break points per game. Last season, they were 28th in fast break points. This season they’ve been hovering around 16th or 17th in the league. The last 10 games with Rondo back starting they’ve been top five in the NBA.

The Bulls Sunday continued with the fast starts they talked about all the time, but rarely achieved. They led 17-8 when Rondo’s arrow landed in Butler’s hand for a dunk. Though the highlight, perhaps of the season, came a few minutes earlier when Davis sealed Mirotic on his back and got a pass over the top for the easy layup. No, not against Niko! You get that weak stuff out of here! Mirotic recovered and went up as Davis went up and blocked the ball cleanly. And then Mirotic even saved the ball in bounds for a Rondo runout to Butler for free throws. He’s Bill Russell!

The Pelicans, finally realizing they had the taller guys, then stopped shooting 25 footers and pounded Davis and Cousins inside to get within 23-21. Butler then took over, and when New Orleans doubled he was quick to get the pass inside to Robin Lopez, who was fouled. The Bulls led 28-21 after one quarter.

“That’s our guy right there,” Lopez said of Butler. “We always know we can count on him. When I’m out there, I’m just trying to do what I can to help him out.”

Then it was the bench, often ineffective, more often maligned, that drove up the margin, a 7-0 run with a Valentine three to start the second quarter to go ahead 35-21. And Portis supporting Butler in the second quarter with five of five shooting for 11 points. The Pelicans closed within 45-40 when Lopez took a pass from Butler on a pick and roll and lofted a hook over Cousins, and then came another of the highlights. Butler got switched onto Davis. So New Orleans went to the mismatch. Butler overplayed to deflect the pass for a turnover and then Rondo pushing the ball found Butler for a corner jumper and 49-40 lead. It was like that as every time the Pelicans made a run, the Bulls countered. The Bulls led 63-47 at halftime after a pair of Butler post up baseline fadeaway scores that were Jordan-like, at least post 1995.

“I’m dialed in,” said Butler. “I think I’m rolling. I’m playing well, doing what my team needs me to do.”

Again, the Bulls pushed the lead out after halftime, back to back Rondo fast break scores early in the third quarter for a 72-53 Bulls lead. The ball moved multiple times finding Mirotic and Butler for threes. But New Orleans was too physical inside and remained within 87-79 after three quarters. The problem was with 37 points after three quarters, Butler was about spent.

Again, that reserve group, now with more continuity and a more stable rotation, answered with a 13-2 start to the fourth quarter for a 100-81 lead with 8:36 left in the game. Michael Carter-Williams was doing some clever playmaking with six assists in less than 14 minutes. He found Portis for the 19-point lead.

But the Pelicans paraded to the free throw line for six points in an 8-0 run as the Bulls began to hold a bit, trying to run that clock, sort of basketball’s version of prevent offense. Rondo broke a near two-minute scoring drought with a driving scoop and a Lauvergne three with 6:42 left gave the Bulls a 105-91 lead. With the Zipser cross court pass assist.

It wasn’t even clear why Lauvergne was playing with Cristiano Felicio back from the bad back. But Lauvergne made big shots as Cousins refused to come out and guard him, the stretch five taking advantage. The Pelicans kept coming, but Cousins generally sabotages comebacks, and he would again. He fired off some amazingly head scratching threes, one early in the shot clock from 28 feet coming out of a timeout. He also committed two brain dead fourth quarter offensive fouls, knocking Bulls players over like it was roller derby. The second saw Rondo, perhaps a bit dramatically, sprawled spread eagled flat on his back. Zipser pantomimed pumping on his chest to revive him. The Bulls could relax. That was just before a Portis three for the 14-point lead at 108-94 with five minutes left.

But they apparently made Cousins mad. He actually began driving the ball, putting back a miss for a dunk, scaring the heck out of the Bulls, who after Portis’ shot had only a three and that putback from Lauverge as their only scores for almost five minutes. Joffrey Lauvergne also a savior? Europe pays back America?

The Bulls missed six of eight shots, the Pelicans got within six, and then there was that Butler turnover, the Pelicans racing to make it a four-point game and still a chance. If not for Paul Zipser.

Zipser dee doo da, Zipser dee aye

My, oh, my, what a wonder day it was for the Bulls.

Plenty of sunshine coming their way?