Bulls

Bulls: Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler explode after Bulls' collapse to Hawks

Bulls: Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler explode after Bulls' collapse to Hawks

The tension and frustration was evident as Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler emerged from the showers after an inexcusable collapse against the Atlanta Hawks.

They were 3 minutes away from getting back over that elusive .500 mark, three minutes away from sending the Chicago hopefuls home with some good feelings as the two stars combined for 73 points as Butler scored 40 and Wade notched 30 for the third time in four games.

But 90 seconds turned those Cinderella dreams into a terrible, ugly pumpkin.

The Atlanta Hawks continued their mystifying mastery of the Bulls with a 119-114 win at the United Center, their sixth straight win, courtesy of a 19-4 run over the final minutes.

It was capitalized after the Hawks took a 114-112 lead, leaving the Bulls with two great options coming out of the timeout: Wade, who was hot. And Butler, who was scorching.

The two literally played horse to extend a 95-91 lead to 110-100 with an array of jumpers, 3-point plays and even a four-point play from Butler, sending the Hawks scrambling for a timeout with 3 minutes left before they regrouped to tie the game, then take the lead.

Apparently the memo didn't make it to Nikola Mirotic, who fearlessly took a triple after Wade kicked it to him on a baseline drive, firing up an errant triple that looked terrible from the moment it left his hands.

"I understand that if you've got an open shot take it," Butler said. "But at a point in the game like that, no offense but you gotta get the ball to your best players. That's just how the game goes. Let it come down on my shoulders or D-Wade's shoulders. Let us be the reason why."

Wade's frustration was felt before Butler spoke to the media, sounding very much like the veteran player who's utterly disgusted and shocked at the state of affairs.

"I don't know what happened, but you continue to be in these kinds of situations and lose games like this, you really don't care enough," Wade said. "You don't care enough. It's got to mean that much to you to want to win. And it doesn't. So I don't know. I don't know happened. I don't know how you fix it. It just doesn't mean enough for guys around here to want to win ball games.

"It pisses me off, but I can't be frustrated and I can't care too much for these guys. They got to care for themselves. We got to do better."

Wade has been the sage, encouraging and experienced star but he brought fire and brimstone after the game, probably as frustrated with Wednesday's result as he is with the season to date.

Count this loss to the Hawks as probably the most upsetting, but it can be added to a ledger of several—especially as the Bulls find themselves right in the middle of an Eastern Conference muck they seem unable to emerge from, mired in mediocrity.

"I heard what D-(Wade) was over there saying, yeah," Butler said. "Mother------- just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the tee. Be a star in your role, man." "That's how you win in this league, man. You have to embrace what this team, what this organization needs for you to do on either end of the floor. On top of everything else, just play every possession like it's your last. We don't play hard all the time. It's very disappointing whenever we don't play hard."

It has Wade questioning his teammates' desire to win as opposed to showing up and collecting a check every two weeks. It's a storm that's been brewing and finally, Mount Wade exploded.

"I wish I could say that everyone in here is going to go home and not eat tonight," Wade said. "I can't say that. I wish I could, but I don't know that they care enough. Games are supposed to hurt. You're not supposed to sleep, you're not supposed to want to talk to anybody. These games are supposed to hurt. I don't know if that is in guys in this locker room."

His challenge was certainly strategic, as he's hoping to stir some kind of lasting emotion from his teammates in a critical hour.

"Hopefully they can prove me wrong, but I will challenge them to see if losses like this hurt," Wade said. "We can play bad, we can miss shots, but we're having too many of these lapses. We're having too many of these losses. This just can't be acceptable if you want to do anything besides have an NBA jersey on and make some money. That's all we're doing right now."

It didn't, although it shouldn't have come down to that possession anyways, if all parties are being honest. Three triples in succession from Paul Millsap, Dennis Scroeder and Tim Hardaway Jr cut the Bulls lead to one and as has been proven all year, when adversity hits the Bulls, it's rare they stand together to fight with savvy and verve.

Schroeder scored 24 with nine assists while Millsap scored 21 and Dwight Howard added 16 with 12 rebounds, including a late dunk when the Bulls' defense again became confused with Hawks' penetration.

The Hawks shot 52 percent and 57 from three with 29 assists on their 43 field goals.

Giving up 41 points in the fourth, 17 triples overall and several backbreaking breakdowns on defense added to the calculated statements from Wade and later, Butler.

The Bulls' schedule gets tougher as the next month approaches with a west-coast swing coming up, a period that could be make or break with the All-Star break and trade deadline not terribly far away.

Who knows it was pointed squarely at Mirotic, whom the Bulls have previously invested so much in but has consistently underwhelmed, or Doug McDermott or Bobby Portis or anyone who could help the Bulls elevate themselves with just a little bit of help.

"You guys see our lineup. There's a lot of shuffling around," Wade said. "Coach don't feel he can count on that many guys right now. That can't be.

"There are guys in this league who people don't think can play. But once they get in certain situations, once they get certain confidence, they can play. It's not about talent.

"We got young guys. Sometimes you're just happy to be here. Once the years start going by, you find yourself in your 30s and stuff like that and start looking back and wishing you did more, I don't know. I've always been a person who tries to seize the moment because tomorrow is not promised to anyone in this game. You're one wrong move away from never playing again. It has to mean that much to you."

The leaders of the Bulls have spoken, and make no mistake, their calculated message was tinged with uncontrollable emotion they could no longer hold in.

"It's not hard to figure out. But at the end of the day if you can't look at yourself in the mirror and realize it yourself, no matter how many people tell you, it ain't resonating and you don't give a damn anyway," Butler said.

Gauntlet laid.

Competition bringing out the best in Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic

Competition bringing out the best in Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic

Competition can bring out the worst among us—insecurity, annoyance and even actions that can be deemed out of character. But it can also bring out a sense of gratefulness, desperation and even unexpected chemistry.

It can turn the story of Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic from being about one punch to them developing…a 1-2 punch.

The latter was on full display in the Bulls’ third straight win, an impressive 108-85 thrashing of the Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics at the United Center. Mirotic was launching heat check after heat check while Portis was in his wide-eyed glory, matching Mirotic’s first-half production with 13 points, playing without hesitation but with a conscience.

In the absence of Lauri Markkanen, a late scratch with back spasms that developed through the afternoon, the incumbent power forwards played the way they expected to coming into the season.

The way Fred Hoiberg hoped this season would be one of competition developing, of culture resetting. Before the drama and before the 10-game losing streak that had the Bulls coach in a lose-lose situation.

“I talked about that a lot, even when we were going through the losing streak,” Hoiberg said. “Guys continued to work and compete, they were attentive at practice and film sessions. Kept their heads down and kept grinding and showed resiliency. They’re doing for each other. There’s no selfishness out there.”

The way they individually believed in themselves, before their actions derailed things, before Markkanen emerged and made observers feel their incident was a blessing in disguise as some form of silver lining.

But they didn’t have a sliver of understanding into Portis’ thinking, or even Mirotic’s motivations. Portis had to deal with third-degree burns on his foot due to a heat pack being on it too long, shortly after the All-Star break last season. So he couldn’t even take advantage of Taj Gibson being traded at the deadline to make a name for himself, with more playing time to be had.

Not even Portis himself wanted to get in his own way after putting in plenty of work through the summer, as his 23-point performance showed Monday. As he’s trying to show on a consistent basis, averaging 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds.

“I got a little stinger on my arm, it still hurts but it’s good,” Portis said. “When you love something, you don’t let anything affect it.”

So even through his transgression threatened his immediate future and overall future in the NBA, it all came back to the notion of competition.

“The best thing about this game is being able to compete and earn your minutes and earn your keep,” Portis said. “It’s what I had to do my first three years is earn my keep. I feel like I’ve done that and I have to keep going. It’s fun to go out there and play this game. Go out there and play hard, talk to the crowd and be myself.”

So when Portis and Mirotic work the spread game to rare perfection, it’s second nature to slap five on the way back downcourt. Mirotic rolling hard to the basket freed up Portis for one of his three triples. Portis sealing off his man led to the Celtics overhelping, leading to a Mirotic jumper.

“Bobby and I, we’re playing good,” Mirotic said. “We are finding each other during the game, and we are bringing the energy the team needs.”

“When we’re both on the court, it seems the team is playing really well. We need to give that credit to Fred because Fred is the one making us play. He’s the guy calling the plays and putting us in the right spot to play.”

Mirotic likes to joke things have fallen into place since he’s returned, as the Bulls are 3-0 since he’s been active. But there is a comfort level, both with the players and the coaching staff, having an experienced player on the floor.

Take the trade demands and Mirotic’s feelings on it however you will, but he’s played like March Niko, not pre-All Star break Niko who drives fans crazy with his inconsistency.

Joking with reporters about his play saying, “I know it’s not March”, Mirotic is well aware of the discrepancy from the magical month to the other maddening months through the season.

In March, Mirotic averages 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. In the others, 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds.

“I’ve been having a lot of confidence in myself so far,” Mirotic said. “I’ve been watching a lot of film and putting in a lot of work this summer. It was just about time for me to be back and get more minutes and get my conditioning back.”

Hoiberg said he’s not surprised by the chemistry between the two, and whether all will ever be well shouldn’t be expected. But Hoiberg is either clairvoyant or lying when he said he saw this coming.

“I’m not. They’re both pros,” Hoiberg said. “They’re both guys that are gonna go out and play with great passion and emotion. You can see it with the way they’re playing off each other out there. It’s been fun to watch.”

And although the Celtics were playing a funky back-to-back after beating Detroit Sunday afternoon, the Bulls’ effort sent them into submission. Portis is feeding off David Nwaba’s energy and it’s becoming a hallmark of this Bulls team—let’s be honest here. Effort had better be a hallmark of this team, this season.

Portis is playing for his career as restricted free agency is around the corner, playing for a chance to rebuild a reputation before he had a chance to truly develop one in his first two years.

And if it happens through the culture of competition, so be it.

“When you lose 10 straight it’s like the whole world is on your shoulders,” Portis said. “Now when you win everybody’s smiling and happy. I got to see both sides.”

“I feel like everybody’s learning their role. When we go out there and play a team, they’ll know whether they win or lose, the Bulls will give it their all.”

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

It’s not exactly a skill, which is good considering the makeup of the Bulls’ roster. And it’s tough to measure, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they rank among other teams. But its results can be easily seen, and in a year where the Bulls have swapped out talent for youth, they’re discovering an energy and passion that’s suddenly resulting in unexpected victories.

The Bulls moved their winning streak to three games on Monday night against a tired and depleted – and yet still far more talented – Celtics team, earning a decisive 108-85 victory that displayed just how much this team still cares. Granted, caring alone and playing with energy won’t have them playing in May or June, but good habits being formed by young players give some optimism for the future.

It was everywhere on Monday night. A letdown of sorts from the Celtics could have been predicted. Boston was playing its third road game in four nights, and the first two (San Antonio on Friday, Detroit on Sunday) were anything but easy. MVP candidate Kyrie Irving was resting a quad contusion and even Al Horford (knee) wasn’t cleared to play until about 20 minutes until tip.

But talent alone still could have pushed the Celtics ahead against an inferior Bulls team. With young wins Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a backcourt of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, and 30 minutes of Horford the Celtics were still equipped to get by a Bulls team that entered Monday with the league’s worst record.

But it didn’t happen. The Bulls were far more aggressive, contested jumpers that Boston wouldn’t, played passing lanes and went after loose balls that the Celtics watched more often than not. Boston took 40 3-pointers even without Irving (and Marcus Morris), and they committed 15 turnovers. It was sloppy throughout, and the Bulls took advantage.

Nikola Mirotic, starting in place of Lauri Markkanen (back), scored 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Kris Dunn was solid again, and the bench scored 30 first-half points that allowed the Bulls to lead by as many as 18 on a team that hadn’t lost a game by double digits all season.

Bobby Portis scored 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, David Nwaba continued his stretch of stellar play with 13 points, six rebounds and a steal, and Jerian Grant chipped in nine assists in 23 minutes off the bench. The Bulls were solid across the board, holding the C's to their lowest point total of the year and shooting 48 percent with 12 3-pointers against the most efficient defense in the league. 

“This is third game in a row now that everybody that’s stepped on the floor has made a positive contribution for the team,” Hoiberg noted.

Those habits are something Fred Hoiberg has seen all season, and his comments sounded more genuine than simple coach-speak. These Bulls players, a majority who are fighting for their spots in the league and their futures, have had the right attitude every night. The talent in the league is the result of a 6-20 record, not the effort.

“Even when we were going through the (10-game) losing streak our guys were coming in and continuing to work. They were very attentive in practice and film sessions,” Hoiberg said. “They kept their head down, kept grinding, and it’s paying off for us with the way these guys are going out every night and competing.

“We’ve come in every day and talked about, win or lose, taking steps in the right direction.”

The Bulls are still headed for the Lottery, and the truth is the majority of these Bulls working every day won’t be on the team when it’s time to contend for titles. But in a season where the Bulls had lost 15 and 16 without much of a direction, a three-game winning streak shows that this team is heading in the direction Hoiberg wants and that better days are coming because of it.