The Bulls Thursday got their revenge on the Philadelphia 76ers in a 102-90 victory.
Has it come to that? Well, maybe not that bad, but at this time in the season and for this Bulls team trying desperately to make the playoffs, it’s rewarding even to have a win over the team that established a record for most seasons purposely trying to lose.
You could almost hear Jimmy Butler, who had his second triple double of the season with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, channeling Al Davis.
Just win, baby.
“We don’t care how we do it, we don’t care how many points we score, how many stops we get; whenever you win that’s all you want this time of year,” said Butler, who took most of the ball distribution responsibilities with Rajon Rondo out with a right wrist injury. “Right now just win. I don’t care how it looks. Get to where we want to get to a day at a time.”
It often felt like it went a day in a deliberate game, dreadful seven of 33 three-point shooting from the 76ers, the Bulls with Michael Carter-Williams, Denzel Valentine and Anthony Morrow combining off the bench for two of 18 shooting. Yet, it was a Bulls bench that won the battle with a wonderful game from Bobby Portis with 12 points and 11 rebounds and a hustling 14 points from Joffrey Lauvergne.
But with Dwyane Wade still out, it was the starters led by Butler and his self anointed wing man, high scorer Nikola Mirotic, who had much of the spirit that beat back the 76ers. Sure, it was a depleted 76ers team, but one that had dominated the Bulls and run up a 25-point lead a few weeks back in the United Center.
But this time, if not artfully and in Bulls style never quite putting away a team ready to go, the Bulls led basically all game, by 10 points after the first quarter, by six at halftime and by 13 after three. The Bulls lead remained in double digits the entire fourth quarter with Butler gleefully passing back to Mirotic for a three and 102-85 lead with 1:51 left for the triple double. Butler now has moved up to 39 triple doubles behind league leader Russell Westbrook. Mirotic finished with 22 points.
Still, it was a buoyant Bulls post game locker room. They remain tied with Indiana for the seventh/eighth places in the Eastern Conference at 39-40. Miami is a half game behind. The Bulls have the tiebreaker over each and face Brooklyn Saturday and then Orlando and Brooklyn next week back in the United Center.
“I just said shoot it,” Butler offered about the finish of the triple double. “What was crazy on the last one Niko said. ‘You need one more,’ and I was ‘You don’t think I know that?’ He said, ‘OK throw it to me I’ll shoot it. Say no more.’ Niko and Bobby both let me have my ninth and 10th rebounds; those are my guys. (But) I know Bobby slaps my hand again as hard as he did, we are going toe-to-toe. Stop smacking my hand like that.”
They could laugh a bit as Butler and Portis became a late night video sensation with Portis’ buzzer beating three to close the third quarter. Butler greeted him with his hand held high and Portis attacked it like a Mike Tyson right.
“I’m a guy who plays with a lot of emotion and grit. I wasn’t trying to smack him hard. When I play basketball, I’m not even on this planet; I’m in another world. I was (thinking going to the bench) like, ‘Man, I hit his hand hard.'”
Well, the coach did say they had to get more physical.
The Bulls did with a 57-50 rebounding edge, five players with at least seven rebounds, including Jerian Grant playing for the injured Rondo. Grant played by far his best all around game of the season with 15 points, his second most, a season high eight rebounds and five assists. Grant also took to heart the demands of Butler, who told reporters at the morning practice and then reiterated to Grant to stop standing around tossing the ball back to him. Play!
“I told him before shootaround, after shootaround; he was taking a nap I texted him,” said Butler. “I let him know you don’t have to throw me the ball every single time. I want you to be aggressive because that will make my job easier; they won’t key in on me and he did a great job of that.”
For his part, Grant said the encouragement of Butler and the constant advice from Rondo all during the game was vital.
“I’ve been watching a lot of Rondo and how the team was playing and him being aggressive, being an extra option,” Grant said. “I started (the game) off the ball. Then Jimmy told me, ‘You’re a point guard; handle the ball, go get it, make plays for people.’ I get that type of confidence from him, and Rondo is helping me the whole game. He points everything out. When someone rolls, he talks about seeing the weak side, where to push the ball for better looks, so many little things that make such a difference. Our team has been playing well the last couple of weeks and he’s been the lead guy, and for him to be there and give me that kind of advice really helps.”
The Bulls hope to find out at practice Friday whether Wade can play as soon as Saturday in Brooklyn in his expedited recovery from his elbow fracture. Wade did not attend Thursday’s game.
But in Wade’s absence, Mirotic has performed the best he has this season, confident, reliable and intelligent. He is averaging 17.2 points and 6.8 rebounds the last 13 games. More stunning, he has been one of the league’s best three-point shooters the last month. He was six of eight on threes Thursday, the third time in the last six games he has made at least six threes. He is shooting 47 percent on threes the last 13 games, averaging almost four made threes per game. No one in franchise history ever has shot threes like this.
“I felt great there. Jimmy did a great job finding the guys because they were blitzing him all game. So after a tough loss in New York, we bounced back and now is the time to keep winning.”
And curiously it is Mirotic and Butler who have been enjoying this bond as playmaker and scorer. Still, Mirotic says he has no doubt that the Bulls need Wade back from injury to have any chance in the playoffs if they qualify.
“Huge (for Wade to return), even though we are playing good right now without him,” said Mirotic. “If we are going to (be in the) playoffs without D-Wade, we don’t have any chance. I can tell you right now that. We need D-Wade, we need his experience. He knows how to play those games. He is working so hard to get back and hopefully he can return soon and we can make the playoffs and everybody will be there and we are going to fight.”
But for now it’s been Butler and Mirotic producing, especially with Rondo now out. And they produced right down to Butler’s statistical milestone.
“I tell him, ‘Jimmy, we are going to play pick and pop; I will shoot that ball. It won’t matter if it’s a far shot. Just give me the ball,’” Mirotic related on the late plan to get Butler the final assist for the triple. “It was a really deep shot. I score it and I was very happy for his triple double; he deserved it. We are all happy we won. It was a big time win for us. We need to step up and finish hard the regular season; we want to be there in the playoffs and then be ready.
“My shot is feeling great right now. Every time I am on the floor, even though I take some tough shots, some deep shots, I feel I am going to make them. When you make shots, it’s time to shoot.”
“I had a lot of critics, a lot of people have been killing me during the season, all you (media), but with a reason,” Mirotic acknowledged when asked about his more controlled style of play the last month. “You are doing your job; you guys have been right. I did not play well at that point. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish the season. I feel much better now. I have some positive opinion from you (media) guys, which is good. I knew Jimmy needed some help tonight. I told him before the game, ‘Jimmy, don’t worry, I am going to be your wing guy tonight.’”
The Bulls weren’t quite flying in a desultory start, the Bulls inching ahead of a 76ers team one of 12 on threes in the first quarter. Butler had eight points and five assists in the first quarter and the tone was established. Robin Lopez had a stuttering offensive start, but finished strong. He ended with nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks as the Bulls had five players score in double figures.
The Bulls got on top 40-26 midway through the second quarter, but this Bulls team doesn’t do leads well.
“I thought our energy out of the gate was really good,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We were flying around defensively, had a lot of deflections early on in that game. We got out and built a little bit of a lead and then got loose with the ball, too many turnovers, shot selection got a little questionable. I think we got it up to 16; one night I would love to push that thing up to 25 and be able to rest some of the guys a little bit.”
Not with this team.
The 76ers added a 12-2 run late in the second quarter and it was just a six-point halftime lead. The Bulls surged out to a 68-52 lead on their own 12-0 run early in the third quarter with the driving and deft play of Grant. But even without much talent with Joel Embiid out, No. 1 pick Ben Simmons never playing, rookie Dario Saric on a minutes limit and a few other injuries, the 76ers trap the ball and pass well on offense. They just don’t have many guys left who can score. Still they kept their deficit around 10 much of the third quarter before Grant’s driving scores and Portis beat the clock.
Portis made six of eight shots and is the other side of an effective power forward tandem lately with Mirotic. Portis is averaging 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds the last 10 games.
“Going out there and being myself now,” Portis explained. “Early on in the season I was playing center, too, where I had to roll. That was something I wasn’t really used to. Now I’m playing my natural position; it’s fun. Just going out there and playing free. I’ve always been a guy to shoot the ball, shoot any shot; at the same time I feel I am shooting good, quality shots now and playing within the offense and it’s been fun.
“Me and Niko always battle in practice,” Portis said. “We push eachother; that’s the biggest thing. If he’s having a good game I want to come in and have a good game, too. I don’t want to be a dropoff when I get in and vice versa and that’s been big for us. It’s tough playing basketball and not knowing when you are going to play. But now I know I’m going to play at least 17 to 21 minutes, so that’s the biggest thing, going out there and having an opportunity to play and playing this game I love. It’s been fun again going out there and being myself and helping my team win. I feel our team is rolling right now.”
Sure, it was the 76ers, but that won’t matter if the Bulls are in the playoffs next week after missing last season. Wade is due to return, Rondo likely soon as well. The rotation is tighter, players seem more comfortable in their roles, Butler is starring and has had help. Control their own destiny now, and all that. Is it their time?