Bulls

Drained Bulls escape from Indiana after Jimmy Butler's game-winner

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Drained Bulls escape from Indiana after Jimmy Butler's game-winner

Exuberance on the bench, relief on the floor, and then…indifference in the locker room.

That was the way to best describe the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls’ heart-stopping 98-96 win over the Indiana Pacers, courtesy of Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic perfectly executing a drawn up play to leave Paul George and George Hill confused with 3.7 seconds left as Butler nailed a 14-foot jumper.

From heart-stopping to heart stopped, it could be said, as the Bulls had to make do without Taj Gibson for the second half of an ugly game with a rib contusion and Derrick Rose gamely playing with a bruised or hyperextended left elbow, which all but took away his ability to drive to the basket.

It was moments before the Detroit Pistons sealed a win against an Oklahoma City Thunder team without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, so the lack of buoyancy wasn’t due to the Bulls missing a chance to make up a half-game on the then-eighth seeded Pistons, although they won the season series with the Pacers if the two should have identical records after 82 games.

But after Game No. 74, the locker room was subdued, to say the least.

[HONDA ROAD AHEAD: Bulls scrambling for their playoff lives]

Perhaps two days of pushing it competitively after weeks of forgetting what the exercise felt like got to them—or it could be this team was worn out and drained after an escape they likely wouldn’t have come away with if not for an opponent intent on self-destruction.

“A lot of sore bodies out there, you could just see the way we were moving,” Hoiberg said. “We were slow motion going from defense to offense. You could tell with the shots, a couple shot clock violations, we weren’t moving well in that direction. Give our guys credit for making big plays when they had to.”

A fourth quarter Hoiberg admitted was “ugly,” featured 26 total points as the Bulls and Pacers combined to shoot 24 percent (11 for 45), with 10 turnovers, with the Bulls battling fatigue while the Pacers battled themselves.

“A really ugly fourth quarter, I thought, on the offensive end,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we stayed in it by guarding them. I thought our bench was terrific.”

If there was beauty, it came in the form of Mirotic’s decisive jumpers as he went on one of those team-saving runs in the second quarter, abandoning the pump fakes and hitting triples off passes from teammates who were looking for him wherever he was on the floor.

In fact, his second-quarter performance of 15 points was better than what any of his teammates could accomplish in four quarters, as the Bulls needed every one of Mirotic’s game-high 28 points, off seven 3-pointers.

“I felt great. Coach found me some open shots and I was able to hit them,” Mirotic said. “We’re playing with a different mentality since our meeting a couple days ago. Even with our loss to Atlanta, we played better than (before).”

His shooting essentially saved them before Butler could, as Butler was busy tracking George, who scored 20 with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals. Ian Mahinmi’s activity and Myles Turner’s energy was almost too much for the Bulls to handle, as they nearly negated Mirotic with an 8-0 run to end the first half after falling behind by 10.

Turner scored twice in a row in the midst of the Bulls’ nearly debilitating drought that gave the Pacers a 94-93 lead. The Bulls made just one field goal in nine minutes, but unlike Monday’s drought in Atlanta, the defense enabled them to stay within striking distance.

“Tonight when we weren’t scoring we were at least keeping ourselves in the game because we made them take contested shots and rebounded the ball,” Hoiberg said. “Half their baskets were off our turnovers and on the break.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

So with the game tied, the Bulls put the ball in the hands of the best of the wounded, a man whose recent performances hasn’t inspired the most confidence.

But considering Rose was a one-armed bandit (4 of 15 shooting) and Pau Gasol was only slightly better (4 of 13), Butler (6 of 10 shooting) was the only realistic choice.

“I’m just glad my teammates and coaches have faith in me, to still shoot the ball late when I haven’t been making shots,” Butler said. “I have confidence in myself. It’s a good feeling knowing they want me to take that shot.”

“Excited to get a win, to tell you the truth. I know everybody plays entirely hard every night. When you come up short, it hurts. It was big to get a win. Guys are nicked up, hurting and to pull out a win like this on the road against a team like this is huge for us.”

When deadpanned that was displaying the excitement was all over his face, Butler finally relented, but said, “I’m tired, boss. I’m tired man.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.