The United Center crowd was on its feet minutes before Saturday night’s game against the Houston Rockets, as the feeling in the building was part anxious excitement and the other, more dominant emotion was plain-old anxiety.
It had the feel of a Game 3 in the playoffs, where a team is coming back down 0-2 and knowing a loss in a seven-game series would essentially end their season.
In other words, the result was predictable as the Bulls rode the wave of emotion, and despite their own 26 turnovers, held on to beat the Rockets on national TV.
“Every game is a playoff game,” Derrick Rose said afterward, having limped into the locker room, playing through taking a hard fall on his tailbone courtesy of a charge from James Harden.
The Bulls surged with new life, buoyed by the returns of Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic, as Saturday was as close to full strength as they’ve been all season — and as they’ll be for the remainder of it.
And make no mistake, how long the season has in it is entirely up to the players and Fred Hoiberg, as through the wave of disappointment this season has brought, there is still enough opportunity to salvage something of this.
Rose’s blow-by’s to the basket, still capable of being one of the few lead guards to go end-to-end in a moment’s notice, was evidenced by his forays and reverse layups, along with his lightning-quick passes to Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol for dunks and jumpers.
Gasol, playing as well as a 35-year old can at this stage, putting up numbers that don’t seem like it during the game, but his pinpoint passes and stand-still jumpers bring a dimension that’s necessary offensively when things do slow down.
Butler still has that extra lift in his jumper, which he displayed in going to get an alley-oop from a bad Gasol pass in the first quarter and crowding James Harden to make his life miserable despite Harden scoring 36 in a one-man show.
“It was great tonight, his energy was awesome,” said Dunleavy of Butler’s return. “He provided a huge boost for us, especially on the defensive end and dealing with Harden. We look forward to keeping him healthy and keeping him out there.”
At Sunday’s light practice, where Hoiberg was still impressed with the urgency his team displayed, he took the unexpected stance of saying this team will have to rely on emotion for the last 21 games — a dangerous proposition considering the stage of the season.
He shrugged off the notion of emotion wearing off at a certain point, once the return of Butler and Mirotic wears off.
“Well, it can't. We can't afford that,” Hoiberg said. “We're at a point in our season right now where every game has to be played with unbelievable urgency and unbelievable effort. That's got to be the constant for this team. Whether we're making shots or not, you've got to give effort, you've got to defend, you've got to give yourself an opportunity, and I thought we did that last night.”
Ironic the criticism of Tom Thibodeau was his so-called lack of ability in seeing the big picture, and belief he would sell his soul — and yours too — to win one meaningless basketball game in January.
Now the Bulls have seemingly co-opted that mentality, and Hoiberg expects to see that type of emotion and desperation every night for as long as it takes.
“That was our focus last night, was going into that game with a playoff mentality,” Hoiberg said. “We felt that going home after the Florida trip, it was important to get back on track. Getting our guys back was a big part of that, and I thought they went out and competed from the beginning.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Certainly the strong start, where the Bulls got after it in the first quarter, gave room for hope as they arose from their slumber that seemed to last for the better part of two months.
“We went out and jumped out to a good lead early in that game and set the tone and got the pace where we wanted it,” Hoiberg said. “We got an 18-point lead early in the fourth and hung on, but the right mentality coming out of the gate. We defended well for the most part.”
Defending is about executing, energy and yes, emotion, but it requires more of the first attribute than the latter. For the last several weeks the Bulls were sleepwalking on both ends of the floor, relying on their continuity and offensive know-how rather than choking the life from their opponent.
And when it came to crunch time — if it came to that — they didn’t have enough muscle memory or toughness to prevent opposing teams from imposing their will and making the Bulls fold.
It’s contributed to the Bulls’ losing nine fourth-quarter leads this season, third to only the talentless Philadelphia 76ers and confounding, confusing Oklahoma City Thunder, coached by fresh-from-college coach Billy Donovan, who lead with 10 each.
“It’s defense,” Rose said. “When we’re up, and we think the game is over with, teams are playing hard and that’s when they go to just shooting threes.”
That’s a sign of desperation and simply where the game is going, as the Bulls are struggling to find their way in this new NBA with their own set of unique circumstances.
On paper, they should beat out the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and even leapfrog the likes of the Charlotte Hornets to obtain something other than a death-knell 1-8 matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But paper hasn’t helped the Bulls be anything aside from mediocre, and the usual void-of-emotion Hoiberg is relying on the only thing he has left perhaps in this underachieving season: riding the emotional wave.
At some point, though, it does wear off and you show what you’re made of.
Game “3” was a success, but Game “4” is the litmus test.
Starting Monday at the United Center.