Back in Brooklyn when our sports team, the Dodgers, was mentioned, there always was that lament and hope: Wait ‘til next year.
Well, for the Bulls, next year is Wednesday against Brooklyn’s latest team that already is working on next year. The Nets are last in the NBA, and assuming it’s not a joke, according to their Twitter account, plan to rest Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for Wednesday’s regular season finale.
It’s the game the Bulls need to win to assure being in the playoffs.
Those three players, two of whom are starters, accounted for 34 points in Saturday’s Nets 107-106 comeback win over the Bulls.
It was a devastating loss for the Bulls given their late nine-point lead and the playoff implications. Had they won, they’d have clinched a playoff spot by now. Instead of having to go to the last game—like in the 2010 41-41 season—to qualify for the NBA’s post season tournament.
That was the year the Bulls were bumped in five games by LeBron and Shaq and Joakim Noah lost all opportunities to ever represent the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. It also was the summer the Bulls whiffed on LeBron and Dwyane Wade didn’t.
The Bulls may get Cleveland again to open the playoffs if they win Wednesday or if Miami or Indiana loses.
You’d think, especially with the Nets early vacation schedule, that the Bulls are in good position to end their one-year streak of missing the playoffs. Plus, the Bulls with Monday’s impressive 122-75 win over Orlando have won six of their last eight games and eight of their last 12.
Of course, you know three of those losses were to the Nets, 76ers and Knicks, the teams with three of the seven worst records in the NBA.
In Brooklyn, the Dodgers were affectionately known as “Dem bums.” The Bulls have heard that, at times, with a different tone of voice. Wednesday can change all that.
“Obviously, we need to go out there with unbelievable focus,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said early Tuesday afternoon following practice. “As a team they're (Nets) playing their best basketball of the season. You look at their game (Monday) against Boston. They were down by 27, but they fought all the way back to where they had three opportunities to cut the thing down to a one possession game. They're the fastest pace team in the league. We need to do a good job of getting off to a good start and sustain it over 48 minutes.
“They're playing free, a lot of three-point shooting. Brook Lopez, one of the best centers in the league. Jeremy Lin, since he's been back healthy, they've been playing excellent basketball. Our guys know. They know what's at stake. They understand what happened on Saturday. Just have to be locked in from the minute we walk in this building tomorrow. Be ready to play a game."
Those comments came long before the Nets Twitter report, which, of course, could change by game time.
Though as Hoiberg and the players have emphasized throughout the 2016-17 regular season fun house ride, it’s only about themselves.
Perhaps there’s a season symbol in Jerian Grant, the 6-4 guard who’s gone from excellence to evaporation almost from game to game, like the Bulls. Who beat Golden State and then lost badly in Orlando, who were wiped out by the 76ers and then finished their 4-0 season sweep of the Cavaliers.
“It’s been an up and down year for me,” Grant agreed about this cliff dive of a season after his first career double/double Monday, 17 points and a career high 11 assists. “Staying ready and making sure when I got my opportunity I was going to be ready; To do it at this point means a lot.”
Grant is averaging 15.7 points and seven assists the last three game starting for Rajon Rondo, who basically saved the Bulls season when he started last month and the team went 5-2 and he averaged 13.3 points and 8.7 assists. And when the Bulls set a franchise record for consecutive games with at least 10 three pointers.
Rondo suffered a sprained wrist in last week’s loss to the Knicks. So Hoiberg went back to Grant, who started from January 24 through March 12. And then didn’t play at all in eight of the next 11 games, playing briefly in the other three. And then started again when Rondo went out.
Rondo is listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game.
Meanwhile, Grant has been terrific as a starter the last three games, shooting 18 for 30 overall and six of 13 on threes. He was competent starting previously, but not nearly as exceptional as he has been.
“(It is) the pace,” said Grant. “Before I was just bringing the ball up, swinging it and going to spot up. Now Fred and guys on the court are telling me to push the ball. We can get some fast breaks, look for guys and it can help the offense. I feel I can do both (shoot and pass). Whatever the game calls for.”
Grant is generally not regarded as a great decision maker, but he is an aggressive offensive player with a good shot. And the change in the Bulls offense when Dwyane Wade went out and Rondo began playing faster has mostly stuck. It’s enhanced Grant’s game and Wade has returned and fit into that design, scoring 13 points on five of 10 shooting Monday as the Bulls had 33 assists and were 12 of 26 on threes.
“Rondo obviously was as key as anybody on this roster for turning things around for us. The pace that he generates and gives our team. When we’re struggling to score in the half court, he gives us the ability to get the ball up the floor quickly. He’s been in pressure situations. He has won a championship. We’ll see how it all plays out (for a return)."
“But Jerian has been terrific,” Hoiberg added. “He obviously was as good as anybody on our roster (Monday) with the double/double and the 11 assists. It’s obviously huge shoes to fill with Rajon being out. He’s done a terrific job of going out and playing with confidence. He is playing off guys well and had the ball in his hands a lot more. He made the right play and the right read. I thought his pace was really good. Defensively, he did a good job getting his hands on balls. Michael (Carter-Williams) gives us a whole different element with his defensive pressure and length. He has done a nice job attacking the paint. He had two or three drives where he attacked closeouts. If it does happen (Rondo’s return), we’ll have some decisions to make.”
For now, it would seem the way Hoiberg has played this season that Grant has earned his way back.
It’s been a highly unusual season for the nephew of Bulls great Horace Grant, the guard acquired from the Knicks in the Derrick Rose trade.
The Bulls had their eyes on the Notre Dame guard in the 2015 draft. The Knicks took him at No. 19 and the Bulls opted for Bobby Portis at No. 22. The Knicks gave Grant a chance late last season and he averaged 11.8 points and shot 43 percent on threes in six starts in April.
He was expendable when the Knicks acquired Rose.
But the Bulls had a crowded guard rotation and then added Carter-Williams for Tony Snell in training camp.
Then Grant went into the season long rotation blender, starting out of the rotation, then starting two games in November and scoring 18 points in Portland. Then out again with several DNPs until becoming a starter in January. But with Wade and Jimmy Butler dominating the ball and Rondo benched in January, Grant effectively became a standstill shooter. He was good enough to shoot 48 percent on threes in February. But he didn’t have a chance to do enough to assure a place in the rotation.
“Making sure guys were involved, getting guys good looks,” Grant said about his plan against Orlando. “Jimmy putting the ball in my hands and telling me to go out and make plays; that meant a lot for me to go out there and do that. It feels good to go out and play well after being taken out of the rotation, especially these last couple of games we need to win. Me being able to play well and help our team win means a lot for me. It means I’m part of winning a big game.
“I’ve got great guys in the locker room telling me to stay ready, keep my head right,” said Grant. “It has helped me a lot. I feel when I’ve gotten my opportunity this year I’ve produced. Not much to say now. I think guys are going to come out ready to play.
“Pretty much it’s win or go home,” acknowledged the leader of Notre Dame’s 2015 Elite Eight NCAA run. “I’ve been in that situation before; obviously not at this level. We have to go out and give our all, especially playing against a team that just beat us; I think we’ll be ready. We control our own destiny; you can’t ask for much more than that.”