The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
By Sam Smith | 3.04.2015 | 2:09 a.m. CT
You’re the Bulls and you’re coming down the stretch Tuesday against the team that knocked you out of the playoffs last season and seems to be a likely first round playoff opponent this season. You’re blowing a 10-point lead with just under five minutes left and you need guys to step up and make big plays with the pressure increasing.
So you turn to Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic?
“It is going to be a collective effort,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “You don’t replace (injured) Derrick (Rose), or Jimmy (Butler), or Taj (Gibson) individually; you have to do it as a team. We are going to need a lot of resiliency and a lot of fight.”
And contributions from the unlikely and likely sources as the Bulls fought off the Washington Wizards in the last few minutes for a 97-92 victory. The Bulls did so with a three pointer and a runner from Brooks, who had 22 points and eight assists. The Bulls then got a hustling loose ball rebound from Mirotic, who led the Bulls with 23 points and eight rebounds coming off the bench, the second consecutive game leading the team in scoring from the talented rookie.
And then it was savvy veteran Pau Gasol boxing out beautifully to save the game with 8.5 seconds left by rebounding a Tony Snell missed three pointer, getting fouled and making both free throws for the final margin. “With our minds and hearts into it a lot of things can happen, so we just bring our will every night and try to give ourselves a chance to win whoever we are facing,” said Gasol, fighting through a sinus condition that has weakened him the last week. “Every game is going to be emotional from now on; every game is meaningful. They’re a tough team. They try to play extra physical to take away stuff. I think we did well, handled it well and were able to get an important win. We are a resilient team. We compete and we try to do our best on the floor; it shows character.”
It was one of the Bulls better wins of the season, if not in artistry or efficiency. They did out rebound the Wizards 47-39 in raising their record to 38-23, and the Bulls did push up their poor shooting of late to 42.3 percent and nine of 29 on threes, the number of attempts helping spread the court better.
But it was mostly one of those against-all-odds types of wins against a team that almost openly pines to play the Bulls, saying they know how to defeat the Bulls with a power game as they did in last season’s playoffs and two of three games this season. Wizards big man Nene even told Washington reporters this week how much he hates the Bulls and Joakim Noah, whom Nene attacked with a flagrant foul late in the game as the slumping Wizards, now 34-27, began to unravel in frustration of being unable to figure out the spirited Bulls.
It could prove a vital game as the Bulls increased their lead over the Wizards to four games and in equaling the season series effectively moved into the tiebreaker. So with 21 games left, the Wizards would probably have to win some 15 games to get past the Bulls and a first round home court advantage. Sure, the Bulls likely won’t see Rose or Butler this month and Gibson was still in a walking boot.
But Thibodeau Tuesday showed a deft management of the rotation that was admirable in not only going deep into the roster, but potentially expanding the team’s possibilities in putting players in position to help. His boots were made for walkin’. Rookie Doug McDermott played 15 minutes, and though scoreless contributed some good defense along with E’Twaun Moore.
Their play in taking the team through stretches in the second and fourth quarters enabled players like Brooks and Tony Snell with a vital late three pointer to be stronger at the finish. So, too, for Gasol with 20 points and 10 rebounds and Noah with 14 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
“I’m not sure (what it says), but I just know it was a good win today and a lot of guys stepped up,” said Noah, whom Thibodeau reinserted late in the game and who made several big defensive saving plays as well. “The ball movement was great. We’ve just got to hold the fort down until those guys come back. I think a lot of the young boys really stepped up in a big game tonight.
“Niko is a stud,” admired Noah of the fast developing rookie who proved even a go to player in the fourth quarter. “Floor spacing is very important as you watch the league and the trend of the league being able to space the floor is very, very valuable. Niko can do that very well. Everyone came with the right mindset. And we kept our composure when they made some tough runs. They are the team that eliminated us in the playoffs last year. When that happens, it’s always more than just a basketball game, even subconsciously.”
Or physically as a frustrated Nene with foul trouble all game and zero points in 20 minutes clobbered Noah on a roll to the basket with 8:13 remaining and the Bulls leading 79-72. Noah had some words for Nene as a flagrant foul was called, though Noah refrained from any unnecessary retaliation. Paul Pierce also got a technical foul at the same time for taunting Brooks, who pretty much laughed about it. Noah, ironically, earlier Tuesday was involved in the release of a video for youngsters on non-violence, “You’re Not Alone,” with several teammates and author Alex Kotlowitz. So Noah also practiced what he preached.
“I’m happy I kept my composure,” said Noah. “Just put out a video a couple of hours before the game about non violence and trying to teach these kids the big picture. So it wouldn’t have been a good look; not today. I’m really, really proud of this team and the way we stepped up tonight.”
It was if not impressive, an inspiring game for the Bulls considering the circumstances and the opponent, at least a rival of sorts in the Eastern Conference. And it was with the 20th different starting lineup of the season with a new backcourt of Brooks and Snell, a rarely used McDermott and Moore playing principal reserve roles and Thibodeau proving he can mix and match and balance with the roster no matter how tattered.
”This is a team we have struggled with the past few years,” noted Mike Dunleavy. “They had a full complement of players. We have great depth. We have guys who can step in. It some ways, tonight was the easy one. That first game out after all the chaos has occurred is probably the easiest because you know you are going to have emotion, energy. But now we know we are going to have to settle in and play this role every night and hold down the fort for a few weeks. So that’s the biggest challenge of them all. We knew we had to be on top of our game tonight, especially playing a team that’s played us so well the last couple of years; our antennas were up. I don’t know if it’s fear knowing if you don’t show up it’s going to get ugly, but guys really brought it tonight.
“They are a physical team,” added Dunleavy. “If they played everyone else the way they played us, they may be looking at championship.”
Not this time, however, as the Bulls were the ones to get out quickly, a 9-2 lead and 24-22 after one quarter. Noah was even dunking again, laughed Dunleavy, a good sign. Perhaps more significantly, Brooks, who had trouble stepping in for Rose, returned to his aggressive offensive game with a clever pick and pop game with Gasol.
“It’s been a rough few games,” said Brooks. “Just getting better and getting more movement. I feel like Doug’s going through the same thing. Kind of just want to see a layup going in. Today you could see I’m getting more comfortable where everyone is going to be. I haven’t started a game for who knows how long. This is different for me. I was struggling at the beginning of it, but hopefully it’s been cleared up.”
After Brooks set Gasol up in the first quarter as Gasol had 10 points, Brooks had his own run of nine straight Bulls points in the second quarter with a three and a pair of those reverse spinners off the backboard he’s unusually adept at. Mirotic added eight points for a 51-44 Bulls halftime lead, often calling for the ball when the Wizards switched into mismatches. Mirotic’s aggressive and confident play for a rookie is as impressive as it is unusual. Mirotic even midway through the fourth quarter drew a mismatch against Otto Porter, called for the ball from Noah on top and then spun around and Noah delivered the pass for a reverse layup.
“Niko is a really good, talented player,” said Dunleavy. “Hasn’t always gotten a ton of minutes or a big opportunity. But now he’s having that chance and I don’t think anybody in here is surprised by it. He has such a good skill set for somebody his size. He’s really shown confidence.”
The Bulls got their offense operating well in the third quarter as Dunleavy and Mirotic made threes for a 10-point lead before a John Wall three to end the third brought Washington within 74-67. Wall ended with 21 points and 11 assists, but the Wizards played slowly, mostly shooting jump shots.
Then came that Wizards meltdown with Nene and Pierce early in the fourth quarter. The Wizards did find some offense with Beal in a run of a few minutes when Noah rested. Thibodeau got Noah back in with 1:49 remaining and Washington within 94-91 and poised to steal the game after scoring in five straight possessions. Much as they did the two opening playoff games last spring in the United Center when the Bulls had held big fourth quarter leads.
Noah then got in the way of a Wall drive and Beal missed a jumper as Gasol cleared the rebound. Brooks then drove and had an underhand flip knocked away. But Noah got a hand on the loose ball and Mirotic beat Marcin Gortat and Porter to the ball and was fouled. Mirotic made one free throw for a 95-91 Bulls lead with 35.5 seconds left. Porter drove and was fouled, making one of two for a 95-92 Bulls lead with 29 seconds left. The Bulls ran down the clock with about a five-second differential. The Wizards elected to play defense. Brooks passed to Snell for a three, but Gasol positioned himself beautifully on the weak side and grabbed the offensive rebound one handed to save a possible Wizards wonder. Gasol made both free throws to effectively end the game as the Wizards missed one more shot.
“Try to position yourself in case your teammate misses,” said Gasol. “Give yourself a chance to get that board. And that’s what I did. I had a small guy trying to box me out; got myself into the best spot I thought was available and got the board and foul.”
And so at least for this day they did find a way.