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The Bulls’ 85-77 victory Thursday over the Utah Jazz wasn’t artistic, elegant or dazzling. There was little of the fast paced play, the fancy playmaking, the high scoring or the sublime connection. Instead the Bulls did what the really good teams do—not ready to say great quite yet—when the shots go awry and they’re hitting all the wrong notes.
They hustled and hurried and harried the Jazz shooters; they crashed and crushed and created opportunities where there seemed none. They endured and finally exhaled when Dwyane Wade knocked down a pair of fourth quarter jump shots when everyone’s offense went fallow for eight minutes. And then Jimmy Butler closed it, finally, with a 20 footer with about a minute left after Taj Gibson dug out another offensive rebound.
Butler had 20 points and 12 rebounds, though shooting seven of 19. Wade added 18 points with the team’s game high plus/minus rating. Robin Lopez had 10 points and 12 rebounds and Gibson eight points and nine rebounds, the interior duo again with stout defense.
The Bulls moved to 8-4 with their fourth consecutive win and fifth in the last six games. They play the Clippers Saturday.
“You know it’s not going to be pretty every night,” said Wade. “A lot of games you play against certain teams it’s going to be ugly. We knew that coming in against this team. It shows a lot about the character of the team to be able to pull out a win like this early in the season with a few men down like there was. To be able to gut it out when we’re not playing well early on from the offensive standpoint; to be able to gut it out is a great win for us.”
Remarkable, in many respects.
You can’t play much worse and win an NBA game, especially on the road and against a team with a winning record.
It showed powerful elements of a team with promise, the desire to compete and play through frustrating periods, a willingness to do the hard stuff, the rebounding and defense when the game seems to be saying it’s not your night. This was a character building game after everything seemed to come so easy in Tuesday’s win against high powered Portland. This was a Jazz team with a slow, exasperating style of play, walking the ball up, taking almost all of the shot clock, excruciating for everyone to watch. And then to be in the middle of it all, like a bad dream.
The Bulls tied a franchise all time low with eight assists, two in the first half. The Bulls shot 36.7 percent, 28.8 percent in the first half. There were painful periods throughout the game of seemingly intermixable stretches without a basket. Yet, the Bulls never stopped trying, never gave in or gave up.
“We found a way, we hung on,” said coach Fred Hoiberg. “You’re going to have nights like this over the course of an 82-game schedule. The constant has to be defensive rebounding, and we did that all game long to give ourselves a chance to win.”
But also the voice that is new to the Bulls and unmistakable, that of Wade.
Hoiberg said there was a timeout late in the game after an obvious defensive breakdown. The coaches had called the play the Jazz was going to run; the Jazz ran it and scored. Timeout.
Hoiberg, like just about every coach, consults with his assistants before going into the huddle with the players. Hoiberg said by the time he got there Wade was into a diatribe about the missed defensive connection.
“He talked for the first 30 seconds when I got into the huddle and he’d been talking for a minute before I got into the huddle with the long TNT timeouts,” Hoiberg related. “Those guys can look each other in the eye and hold each other accountable and talk about the game. We messed up a coverage and he absolutely jumped them; that stuff is huge and is going to carry over into the next game and the rest of the season. When you have a group of guys who can sit there and look each other in the eyes and hold each other accountable it goes a long way.”
It’s the prize the Bulls probably also were unaware of when they were able to sign Wade last summer. Leading men, taking responsibility, giving others confidence are rare traits. Yet they seem to define and come naturally to Wade. He’s not the “Flash” of leading the league in scoring, but he made absolutely the two biggest shots of the game in the fourth quarter when no one could make anything against the slog known as Jazz basketball. Not very jazzy.
Wade again credited Hoiberg and the staff for an exceptional game plan and being prepared when the Jazz made adjustments. Yet, when the Bulls mostly reserve guys missed some, Wade was demanding.
“We prepared for fourth quarter plays at shoot around,” said Wade. “’These are three plays they are going to run,’” Wade said the coaches explained. “And then to blow the coverage; unacceptable. Make sure people are held accountable. We can’t have that when we are trying to win ballgames. We responded well and didn’t blow any more after that and won the game.”
It was a little thing, but a big thing, the players willing to step up and step in and demand excellence. No one objected; they just made sure not to repeat the mistake.
“With the different styles of teams, to be able to figure out how to win both games is a step we’re trying to take to be a good team in this league,” said Wade. “We’ve gotten better. This team responds when we have those opportunities. Just trying to find ways to win. Just guys coming out playing pure basketball; no individual nothing. It’s good to be around that, good to be around when no one has his head down, everyone just excited to be on a winning ball club.”
It didn’t look like the Bulls would be one in that first half, the Bulls ahead early 12-5 but then trailing 26-25 after one quarter and as ugly as things get in a second quarter that saw the teams combine for 12 of 46 shooting. They went one sequence of 12 straight combined empty possessions. The Bulls had two assists at the half, shot 15 of 52 while the Jazz had a stretch of six turnovers in seven possessions. While they were doing that the Bulls went more than nine minutes with one field goal. Yet, they trailed 43-41 at halftime.
“I told them, ‘I love your fight,’” said Hoiberg. “’We’re sticking around, we’re hanging in there. We’re shooting 28 percent and we’re down by two points.’ I thought our guys came out of the gate with really about the only pace that we had all night in the first eight minutes of the third quarter. I think six of our eight assists were in that third quarter. Utah makes you play a different style. They don’t give you fast break points. They make you score in the half court. Again, our pace was nonexistent in that first half. Some of that has to do with the altitude. I tried to tell our guys that the altitude only affects you outside, but they didn’t buy it.”
The Jazz was missing injured starters George Hill and Derrick Favors while Rajon Rondo was out with a sprained ankle and Doug McDermott back in Chicago for concussion treatment.
Jerian Grant got the start again for Rondo, but was just two of 10 for the game with one assist in 29 minutes. The reserve group with Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis had a nice run to open the second quarter for a 34-29 Bulls lead, but then started the drought that Butler couldn’t change with his return. He did hit a three at the halftime buzzer with an “about time” reaction.
But then the Bulls did enough in that third quarter to tilt the game to their side, an 8-0 run to start and 21-4 overall for a 59-50 lead and 66-58 after three quarters. Nikola Mirotic chipped in a pair of scores late while Wade again had two big jumpers midway to accelerate the Bulls engine and a 58 percent shooting quarter.
Though most significant was the defense played by Lopez and Gibson for a second straight game, protecting the rim against drivers, getting on the offensive boards, helping on the perimeter along with Butler’s relentless harassment of Gordon Hayward that kept him to three of 15 shooting and eight points.
“I just go out there and compete,” said Butler. “He (Hayward) is the one that makes their team go. So if you can take him out of the game, you give yourself a great position to win.”
It seemed curious with the Jazz unable to score that coach Quin Snyder mostly kept Joe Johnson on the bench, which allowed Butler to concentrate on and thwart Hayward with physical play. Johnson was three of four backing down smaller Bulls guards, but barely played 20 minutes.
Mirotic had a driving dunk early in the fourth and Valentine a score as the Bulls seemed to put the game away with a 75-58 lead. But the Bulls went frigid again, more than four minutes without a basket while the Jazz went on a 10-1 run to get within 78-70 with 5:40 left.
Wade answered with a pullup, added another a few minutes later sandwiched around five Bulls misses. And then with the Bulls holding an 84-77 lead, Gibson grabbed a Wade miss that Butler turned into a 20 footer. Gibson then cleaned up with a switch and then straight on block 20 feet out on a Rodney Hood attempt.
So the Bulls are 2-0 to start the Western Conference “circus” trip for the first time in 20 years and quietly tied for third in the conference despite having played the most road games in the East.
“Good teams can play many different styles,” said Wade. “We want to be a good team, so you have to be able to play either way. I give credit to our bigs. They are doing a hell of a job, rebounding the ball, protecting the paint. So it allows us on the perimeter to be aggressive, try to mix it up because this league is about guards and it’s tough against these guys. But you have to get these wins and we did a good job of that.”
Better than expected so far. Which makes you wonder what else is coming.