PHILADELPHIA—Joakim Noah loudly protested to the officials, followed by Kirk Hinrich doing it in a more diplomatic manner, in a demonstrative display of emotion after inexplicably fouling Jahlil Okafor taking a desperation 3-pointer with the shot clock headed toward expiration.
It was a rare show of emotion early as the Bulls fell behind by as many as 24 points before Jimmy Butler authored a career performance, keeping the Bulls in the game as he waited for his teammates to show a pulse.
It took overtime, and it took all of his career-high and NBA-season best 53 points but the Bulls survived their own lethargy and lack of fight to come up with enough to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 115-111, at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night.
The 50-plus point night added his name to Bulls lore, joining Chet Walker, Jamal Crawford and yes, Michael Jordan to the lot of Bulls with that achievement.
“Michael’s the best player to ever play this game. I’m just playing my role on this team. And I wear his shoes (Jordan Brand),” Butler said. “He’s got a couple notches up on me. A lot of them, actually.”
Fred Hoiberg was in amazement on the sidelines as Butler carried the Bulls to win.
“I think so. They had a good defender on Jimmy,” Hoiberg said. “We used him as a ball screener and as a handler. Again, play after play. It was an unbelievable performance.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
By the time he beat Robert Covington for a backdoor layup and foul, which fouled out the 76ers’ biggest offensive threat (25 points), it became clear it was his night.
“I was just shooting the ball. I just kept being aggressive,” said Butler, who added another explosion to his January file, which includes a 42-point performance against Toronto. “Took some bad ones, some terrible ones. But luckily we pulled out the win.”
Another three-point play later was countered by Ish Smith, then finally he had some help in the way of E’Twaun Moore hitting a triple with 1:17 left to give the Bulls a 104-101 lead.
Smith hit one of his own and to overtime we went, where Moore gave the Bulls more.
Seven straight points gave the Bulls a 111-108 lead before Butler chased down a rebound for a layup with 1:20 left to give the Bulls a five-point lead. And he defended Smith’s driving layup with 25 seconds left, providing just enough length for it to bounce off the rim, preventing the 76ers from tying it again.
“Just play basketball. Take the shots the defense gives you,” Butler said. “Everybody sees 53 but that’s not the reason we won. E’Twaun made some big plays down the stretch. He stepped in. That guy gets a lot of credit for tonight.”
It was a defensive stop added to his 10 rebounds and six assists in 49 grueling minutes, which was punctuated by going to the line a career high 25 times, where he made 21 free throws.
Amazingly before the game, no one could be sure how effective Butler would be considering he sprained his ankle late against the Milwaukee Bucks two nights ago and didn’t go through shootaround.
“It was one of those looks, ‘if you take me out I’ll quit’,” Hoiberg said.
But 10 points into the first quarter, it was clear he was mentally and physically into the game, even through his lapses and the mistakes of the rest of the team.
The lead climbed from 12 to 15 to 22 midway through the second quarter, at 50-28, and things looked quite helpless.
It was a comedy of errors, until it suddenly didn’t become so funny—or until it became “laugh instead of cry” funny for the Bulls.
“Turnovers. Hanging heads and no urgency at all on defense,” Hoiberg said. “It couldn’t have been a worse start for us. Everything affected us, the way we handled it. At halftime we cut it to 16, it was manageable. They backed it up.”
Hoiberg unleashed holy hell on his team at halftime, according to the players, as the mild-mannered coach got on his team.
“We don’t gotta continually say we know what we’re doing wrong,” Butler said. “Fred came in here and got on our asses, said “turn this s*** around”, he knew it, we knew it. And we coached the s**t out of us. Made sure we ran these plays. Made sure we executed.”
It wasn’t a stormy comeback for the Bulls, who should’ve never found themselves in this position—even without Rose and Gasol, because despite the 76ers being better since inserting Jerry Colangelo at the top of the leadership board, they’re still a team that has six wins to its name.
And all it would take would be a few minutes of continuity because the 76ers clearly ran out of gas midway through the third quarter as Smith and Covington made miraculous shot after shot to hold the Bulls off for as long as they could.
Moore scored 14 for the Bulls and Doug McDermott 17 in 33 minutes, including a thunderous dunk in the final minutes of regulation that stunned an already stunned crowd.
They were equal parts stunned about Butler’s performance as they were about their team taking a huge lead.
But by the end of it, Butler’s scoring and a few heady plays proved to be just enough on a night where “just enough” should’ve been more than enough to beat a toothless bunch.