The same story was playing out Thursday at the United Center. This time the Bulls wrote a different ending.
Leading by 10 after three quarters against the favored Clippers, Fred Hoiberg's group began that ominous fourth quarter that had troubled them in each of the past three games in similar fashion, with Los Angeles opening the period with a 12-2 run that erased the lead.
During a three-game stretch in which the Bulls had been outscored 102-70 in the fourth quarter, Thursday night's would have been the worst of the bunch. The Clippers had played in Milwaukee the previous night, Blake Griffin had been ejected early in the second half for a hard foul on Taj Gibson and Doc Rivers was rolling his comeback dice with a lineup consisting of NBA misfit toys in Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Austin Rivers; the Clippers bench entered Thursday shooting 39.5 percent from the field, second worst in the NBA.
But the early returns were positive. Rivers buried a 3-pointer from the right corner to get the run going. Wesley Johnson connected on another from the left wing to cut the deficit to six, then Smith buried a pair of triples, prompting a second timeout during that span from Hoiberg. The Los Angeles triples were sprinkled in between another offensive lull from the Bulls in which they missed 10 straight shots following a Derrick Rose runner off the glass to begin the period.
The Bulls were in the midst of deja vu at the United Center, a place where they had lost two straight for the first time since last January. Making matters worse, Rivers still had his big guns — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan — resting on his bench ready to close out the comeback.
The remaining 7:29 certainly wasn't pretty — a theme throughout the night — but as Hoiberg correctly observed: "Our guys found a way."
A Jimmy Butler jumper gave the Bulls a two-point lead, and Gibson's thunderous putback dunk off an Aaron Brooks missed triple gave the Bulls breathing room in the form of a four-point lead. Los Angeles hit 3s on three of their next four possessions, but all came in response to Bulls baskets, including triples from Rose and Pau Gasol, who led the Bulls with 24 points and three 3-pointers.
As if Smith's pair of 3-pointers weren't a sign of more fourth-quarter trouble (Smith is shooting 28.6 percent from deep this season) then Paul's 32-foot triple with the shot clock winding down to pull the Clippers within three, 78-75, was. But Brooks responded with three free throws after a clumsy Paul shooting foul, and the Bulls played two transition opportunities perfectly on defense, resulting in a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute offensive foul and missed Paul layup with a chance to get within one possession in the final two minutes.
A rose floater off the glass pushed the lead to six, and the Bulls withstood yet another 3-pointer from Johnson, with Paul's triple attempt at the buzzer hitting off the back iron.
The Bulls' troubles weren't solved on a night when they shot 35 percent from the field and committed 11 turnovers. They also nearly lost a game in which their opponent shot 3-for-23 in a quarter and played without their All-NBA power forward the final 18 minutes. The Bulls again were outscored in the final stanza, 26-19.
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But for a night, numbers didn't matter to the Bulls. Another tally in the win column did.
"Here we are again, fighting for our life. And I think now what’s most important is to build on it, minimize those type of runs against us in critical times, especially down in the fourth quarter," Gasol said. "It was a must-win, otherwise we’d be talking here about four (losses) in a row and (it's) just not a good place to be."
It was a mask-less Rose that led the charge. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, Rose, who went scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting in the first half, forgot to put on the mask protecting his face after orbital surgery. Rose kept the mask off and scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting with a pair of assists. Gibson, making his second straight start, scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Joakim Noah continued to show energy, making the most out of a grind-it-out game built for his style with 13 rebounds, two assists and a pair of blocks. Butler added 14 points and eight assists and didn't turn the ball over in 37 minutes.
Though the Bulls were two games out of the top spot in the East and less than one-third done with their regular season, Thursday felt like a must-win, as Gasol alluded to. And while questions will still arise about how the Bulls offense is responding to Hoiberg's philosophies, as well as rotation questions after another quiet night from Nikola Mirotic (five points and 11 rebounds in 14 minutes), for one night the Bulls flipped the script and busted out of a funk that had plagued them in each of their last three losses.
"We had to get this one. This was a huge game for us after losing three in a row, including a couple on our home floor," Hoiberg said. "We had to find a way to win a game. It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to get the win."