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.”