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By Sam Smith | 4.04.2015 | 2:59 a.m. CT
It wasn’t looking like the greatest night in a great season for Pau Gasol even as he was recording his 50th double-double of the season Friday, the first Bull to do so since Charles Oakley in 1986-87.
The Bulls had blown basically all of a 16-point lead to the Pistons—much as they’d blown a 19-point lead to Detroit two weeks ago and lost—and now were trying to hang on down the stretch when the usually savvy Gasol got caught up complaining about the lack of a foul call and Andre Drummond ran ahead of him for an easy layup to bring the Pistons within 83-82 with 30.8 seconds left.
“It’s a mistake I made,” admitted Gasol. “I need to get back to my man and not lose sight of him like I did and they got an easy two points from it. I was frustrated. I made those two bad plays on defense and offense where Drummond was able to block my shot. I thought I was getting fouled underneath. He was lifting me up with his knee when I was trying to get close to the basket; didn’t get the call and so miss play on offense, miss play on defense. I needed a way to make it up for it.”
Gasol did in dramatic, explosive and game saving style, slam dunking a Taj Gibson miss as Gasol boxed out the powerful Drummond, was fouled and finished the three-point play with 5.7 seconds left to secure the narrow victory for the Bulls.
The win moved the Bulls back into third place in the Eastern Conference at 46-30 as they head to Cleveland Sunday for a nationally televised game with the Cavaliers, who are three games ahead of the Bulls in second. Jimmy Butler added 18 points, Joakim Noah had six points, nine rebounds and 10 assists and Aaron Brooks, zero for seven at the time, scored five straight Bulls points with the game tied at 78 with 2:25 left to give the Bulls just enough room for Gasol to close it out.
“I saw Taj wide open, so I saw he was going to take the shot and I was hoping he was going to knock it down,” said Gasol, who finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds. “But I had to get myself in good position in case he did miss. The ball bounced and I kind of boxed Drummond out a little bit to be able to go get it and finish it off strong and knock down the free throw, which gave us a four point lead.”
It was a relief as the Bulls had led by 16 early in the third quarter and then were tied at 59 going into the fourth. Kirk Hinrich remained out with a knee injury, but he appeared to be progressing and probably will play again next week. Derrick Rose didn’t return yet from knee surgery, but he shot for a long time before the game and also could play next week.
And while the Bulls won for the sixth time in the last eight games, it was clear from the post game comments of the players and coach Tom Thibodeau they are not pleased or confident about their play getting close to the playoffs. Tony Snell has reverted to playing passively and was scoreless, mostly running away from shots. Though Gibson played aggressively inside with 10 points and nine rebounds, he shot four of 13. The team shot under 40 percent again and four of 17 on threes while Drummond pounded them for more than 20 rebounds for the second consecutive time. The Bulls were much better on the offensive boards, especially Noah and Gasol, compared with the poor effort in Milwaukee Monday. But they’re still being pushed around often inside and the perimeter shooting remains poor. They don’t look like a team improving in the last weeks of the season.
“I think before the Milwaukee game we were playing at a high level,” said Gasol. “I think we took a step back in that game where a lot of things we didn’t do well; turned the ball over, not ready physically to match their intensity, shot the ball poorly, missed free throws. We can’t afford to have those types of games, especially at this point in the season when everybody is playing for something. We are playing for something; we are trying to get to the best possible shape so we can approach the playoffs in the best conditions.
“There’s not a magic button here (to push to start the playoffs),” said Gasol, who played for two title teams with the Lakers. “What you see in the regular season is what you are going to get in the playoffs. So we have to try to be more consistent in the last six games we have. And that will determine who we will see in the playoffs. Now every game is meaningful; we have to be aware of that. You can’t expect things to click when it’s crunch time when everybody is on. You’ve got to do what you have to on a daily basis to put yourself in the best place regularly so you get to the playoffs and try to turn it up like everyone else.”
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was terse when asked about scoring droughts of late that have the Bulls once plentiful offense early in the season staggering to the close with the team averaging 97 points the last 20 games with nine of those 91 points or fewer. That ranks among the lowest scoring teams in the league.
“We are concerned. We have to build our rhythm; we are heading down the stretch,” noted Thibodeau.
Yes, the Bulls very much need Rose back and playing at a significant level as the offense staggers with sub 20-point quarters coming in each of the last two games.
Gasol has been reliable getting his 20 points; and Butler will get there or close, though his shooting percentages vary. But the Bulls continue to have those long scoring droughts during games, especially these last two with the 29-47 Pistons. They outscored the Bulls 54-19 to close the game in Detroit two weeks ago and held the Bulls to 12 third quarter points Friday. It’s not so much the points a player like Rose can score; it’s the ability to carry the team through a drought with a few key baskets, getting to the line or opening up the court for other shooters. Even with the play of Gasol and the improvement of Butler and Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls really don’t have anyone to draw a double team. So they struggle to score, again back to playing slowly in the half court and lacking the easy baskets that a player like Rose can help provide with his quickness. Though waiting for someone to return has been the story of this Bulls team for three years.
“You are going to have lapses,” said Gibson. “Like Thibs said, we have to bounce back. They made their run and we had to bounce right back like the way we started the fourth quarter, getting the lead. Learn and understand when you have your backs to the wall and things going against you, you can’t hold your head down; you have to keep pushing forward. Guys made the rights plays, guys rebounded the ball, played defense late. Then Pau’s big rebound late was one of the big things of the game.
“It seems we’re never healthy no matter what,” added Gibson with a shrug and a sadly knowing smile. “We are always having this issue where we can (try to) get full strength going into something. We always have a lot of nagging injuries; every year something different.”
The Bulls came out fast Friday, a 15-8 lead going to Gasol as they do early. But Brooks, truly being asked to do an awful lot with Rose and Hinrich out, struggled with Reggie Jackson as did E’Twaun Moore. Jackson had a dozen points among his 22 in the first quarter to give Detroit a 26-25 lead. Gibson and Butler were terrific in the second quarter on both sides of the ball as the Bulls hit the boards for second and third shots, pushed the ball to finally get a few easy scores—Mirotic actually doing so the best firing out of the backcourt with rebounds—and Gasol and Mike Dunleavy even with some playground moves as the Bulls closed the quarter with a 10-0 run to lead 47-35 at halftime. The Pistons scored just nine second quarter points and then the Bulls opened the second half taking a 53-37 lead.
But the Pistons began firing—and making—threes as they do, scoring 12 straight in a miserable and indifferent Bulls response. So much so that Gibson said veteran Nazr Mohammed lit into the team after the third quarter.
“We have to understand what we are playing for,” said Gibson. “We are playing for a lot at stake right now. It was good to see guys, some of our veterans speak up tonight. Nazr got into guys and really challenged guys and I told Nazr that’s what we need right now. We understand we have a lot of guys who can play, but we need guys to speak up sometimes and push us even harder. The coaching staff pushes us all they can; you got guys who won a championship pushing you ahead and giving you the right advice and that’s what we need.”
It also helped the Bulls had someone like Gasol who could make plays.
The Bulls pushed their lead back to 72-63 early in the fourth behind Mirotic and Butler. But even former Bull John Lucas began scoring and the Pistons looked like they might steal this one, too. Thibodeau made a nice move in getting Gasol back in with about five minutes left—this time sitting Noah for the stretch—and Gasol matched the Pistons immediately with a pair of post scores. It was a positive sign for the playoffs that the Bulls do finally have a post threat late in games.
But Detroit kept coming, and then Brooks showed up.
He’d been zero for seven. But with the score tied at 78 and the Pistons about to take control, Brooks dribbled into an unlikely left wing three pointer for an 81-78 lead with 2:02 left. The Bulls held off Drummond inside and then Brooks somehow put in an over-the-shoulder back to the basket left handed something on a drive left with 1:15 left for an 83-78 Bulls lead.
“He does make those types of shots,” said Gasol. “I think he makes those shots more effectively than the regular shots. That was a big two shots he knocked down at the end; having a difficult night offensively for him so he stepped it up when we needed it.”
But the Bulls fouled Drummond and he somehow made both despite shooting 39 percent on free throws and then Gasol was stopped and complained and the Pistons scored again while he watched. Gasol knew immediately his error and he made the tough play to save the game. Just barely.
“We found a way,” noted Noah. “Happy we got the W and move on. It’s the NBA, the highs and lows.”