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By Sam Smith | 3.07.2015 | 12:43 a.m. CT
The Bulls lost a game Friday, but they may have found another answer to a longer season.
Bulls rookie Doug McDermott had his best game of the season with a career high 16 points, 12 in a second quarter blitz that was the Bulls best sustained offensive sequence of the game. The Bulls would lose 98-84 to the Indiana Pacers, stalling down the stretch like an Indy car running out of fuel on the last lap.
The Bulls were within 77-74 on a McDermott 20 footer with 6:53 left. But then they gave up a dunk to Ian Mahinmi, lost a crucial jump ball which turned into a Pacers’ three pointer for an 82-74 Indiana lead with 5:50 left and then pretty much shut down with four consecutive missed jumpers before a Nikola Mirotic steal and a pair of free throws from Tony Snell. But by then, the Bulls trailed by nine with under three minutes left and didn’t have much left after the emotional and exhilarating Thursday night home victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Bulls, led by Pau Gasol with 18 points and 10 rebounds for a league best 41st double/double, fell to 39-24 and headed for a Sunday national TV game in San Antonio. The streaking Pacers with 10 wins in the last 12 moved to 27-34 and tied with Miami for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Down the stretch in the fourth quarter giving up second shots, free throw rebounds; we just got flat,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I don’t know if we ran out of gas, but we just didn’t finish our defense as well as we could have. There are a few things we have to clean up defensively.”
Though by the looks of that game with the Bulls shooting 36 percent, their fourth game in the last seven under 40 percent, the offense could use a boost. And perhaps the Bulls have found one in McDermott. The high scoring collegian missed a month with a cleanup knee surgery and has played little since the opening weeks of the season. But with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson out injured (only Butler made the trip with the team), Thibodeau has mixed and matched and gone deep into the bench. Pacers coach Frank Vogel before the game called the Bulls the best “next man up” team perhaps in all of sports.
In defeat Friday, it was McDermott, and it was encouraging after a pair of flat performances when he finally got a chance to play this week. He was zero for eight in about 24 minutes against the Wizards and Thunder, scoreless. You could almost see he and his teammates wishing and hoping and urging one to go in to get him going. They’d watched him all season in practice make shot after shot from all over the court, and they knew he was a confident kid. Even Joakim Noah after Thursday’s win with McDermott scoreless said he was getting close.
He may be arriving at just the right time.
“I knew it was coming,” said Noah, who had a season high 11 assists and seven rebounds. “He’s too talented for it not to come; he’s finally getting an opportunity and the more he plays the better he is going to be. He has a chance to be a very good player in this league. Dougie’s aggressive; I like his style of play.”
McDermott demonstrated the best of that in a flashback second quarter in which he attempted eight of the Bulls first 10 shots and then assisted on a Noah 20 footer that gave the Bulls their biggest lead of the game at 34-32. The Bulls would only lead for about five combined minutes during parts of the second and late third quarters.
“I think I have been pressing,” admitted McDermott, who was the Bulls best percentage shooter at eight for 17 with mostly midrange shots and layups. “I was out a long time and then not playing a whole lot and then kind of got thrown into the mix the last couple of games and I wasn’t quite comfortable. Today, I kind of took a deep breath and just went out there and played basketball. I think Jo was really unselfish getting me going with great passes.”
McDermott came on to start the second quarter after the reserves with Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore energized a starting group that quickly fell behind 18-6 to start the game. Other than that McDermott inspired second quarter beginning, the Bulls were outplayed to start every quarter, also 8-0 to start the second half and 7-2 to start the fourth quarter. The Bulls had briefly taken a 62-61 third quarter lead on a Kirk Hinrich three and were tied at 66 after three quarters on a McDermott tip in at the buzzer.
“We didn’t shoot the ball very well,” said Gasol. “The game changed quickly the middle of the fourth when they made three or four shots in a row and we couldn’t contest or reply to those shots. Then we had to foul; they got offensive rebounds on us (outrebounded 51-44) and put the game away. The game was close for the most part. We gave ourselves a chance, so that is impressive enough with our inability to score the ball well.
“It was nice to see him (McDermott) make some shots, make some plays,” said Gasol. “He had a really good quarter. He plays with confidence and aggressiveness and today he probably had the best game of the year for himself.”
McDermott, the lottery pick with so much promise the Bulls traded up to draft with two lower first rounders, apparently just decided to go down firing, if necessary.
He came out with a drive to open the second quarter with the Bulls trailing 23-20 against the Pacers’ torpid pace. If they get that eighth spot, they are going to be an unwelcome opponent for likely top seeded Atlanta. Or whomever gets to second in the Eastern Conference, where the Bulls are now, if the Pacers move to seventh. Indiana also could get Paul George back from injury before the playoffs and be a surprise.
McDermott then finally achieved what all slumping shooters shoot for, the sight of some success, a ball going in. Shooters talk about it all the time like it’s a Zen moment, where you are the ball. Then you can relax.
That first one was just a layup on a pass from Hinrich on a cut. It was the wish that let the shooting genie out of the bottle.
“Huge difference (seeing a shot go down),” agreed McDermott. “Any scorer once they see one go in kind of opens everything else up; still missed a lot of easy shots I normally make, which is frustrating. Could have helped us win. Just felt good to kind of get my feet wet and play more minutes than I’m used to.”
After that it was a step back 17 footer that rattled in on a pass from Noah to get within 28-24, a reverse layup from Noah to move within 30-28, another Noah back door pass for another McDermott layup to get within 32-30 and a 23-footer on a pass from Hinrich to give the Bulls a 36-35 lead.
The Bulls would end the half on a nice Moore dash that ended in free throws and the Bulls within 45-42 at halftime. Though Moore didn’t have much magic left from Thursday with five points in 23 minutes, he showed a willingness to push the ball in transition out of the backcourt, which few of the Bulls reserve guards have done. Without Rose, the Bulls need those easier points, and Moore has shown he can deliver.
But Moore doesn’t come with the scoring and shooting potential of someone like McDermott, one of the top percentage three point shooters in NCAA history. If he is able to break out and fill in, it would be a major lift for a Bulls team that often struggles on offense, especially without Rose. The Bulls Friday got 10 points and eight rebounds from Mirotic, though he was three of 13 and zero for six on threes. Snell was quiet again with eight points and Aaron Brooks was just two of 11. Mike Dunleavy was an aggressive contributor with 14 points and nine rebounds, and has been a mentor of sorts to McDermott as a similar style player.
“We talk a lot,” said Dunleavy. “I try to give him my take. I’m not going to tell him how to play; the guy is one of the great all time college scorers. That’s going to transfer to this level, no question about it. So I’m not going to tell him do this or do that. I’m trying to tell him mindset wise, how to stay in shape, get a rhythm, keep a rhythm when you are not playing and when you get out there let it fly; he knows. He’s going to have a lot of great nights in this league. I’m really impressed with his ability to score the basketball. He’s got real talent.”
McDermott, though not exceptionally fast, has been adequate defensively. He obviously knows the help schemes and is in position. He works hard at it and demonstrated aggression on the offensive boards. The concern was whether he’d lose confidence or an edge watching and waiting and waiting and waiting, and then not producing. But even in attempting 10 of the team’s 20 shots in playing 8:31 in the second quarter, he showed he’s willing to accept the consequences. It’s the sort of attitude you need in the playoffs.
“I’ve never gone through an injury like that where I missed a large portion of time, especially during a season where other guys are playing a lot more games and are in rhythm and I kind of have to start like training camp,” said McDermott. “I think right now I feel real comfortable; just having a game like this I think will really help me. I still don’t feel like I am playing to my potential. I’m going to continue to work and continue to get in better game shape and obviously with those two out it opens up some minutes for me and some other guys. And we have to make the most of it because when they come back it’s probably going to be hard to get as many minutes.
“That first game was really frustrating because I rattled in and out a three I thought I hit and then I missed like four layups the second half,” McDermott noted. “Just dumb stuff; normally I always finish. It was frustrating, and it gets on you mentally when you miss bunnies like that. You want them back so bad and I was able to get some back tonight, but also to continue to improve.
“It’s frustrating being a rookie in the NBA,” said McDermott. “I lean on guys like Jo; he texts me all the time; if I have a bad day. I just have great leaders, Kirk especially. I’m going to be fine having guys like that around. I learn a lot from Niko, from Tony in his really good stretch. You are going to make mistakes out there, you’re not going to be perfect. Thibs is not expecting you to do everything right. For me, it’s huge having a guy like Niko to watch. He’s really turned around his game because he has that short term memory and that’s something I need to apply to my game and my life as well.
“To have a game like this,” said McDermott. “It wasn’t perfect, but it is something I can build off.”
Perhaps with the sort of shot that can help the Bulls over the finish line some time.