The one constant in this Bulls’ season has been inconsistency, an aspect that seemed to rear its ugly yet predictable head Wednesday night.
Beat the Spurs, then lose to a team like the Denver Nuggets, who entered Wednesday's game losers of seven straight.
The script was nearly too irresistible for this bunch to pass up, but they beat the young but game squad, 99-90 at the United Center, the second in a home-heavy schedule that has seen them beat some of the NBA’s best while their one home loss took place against the league’s youngest team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“In this league sometimes you have to win ugly,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Tonight we found a way. We found a way and that’s the encouraging thing on a night where we didn’t play that great.”
Pau Gasol stepped up in the absence of Nikola Mirotic, who exited early in the first quarter with a concussion. He nailed his first six shots from the field, then stabilized things late when the Bulls needed it defensively, thwarting multiple shot attempts inside with his four blocked shots and general presence made the Nuggets think twice before shooting, often putting up awkward shots.
Gasol finished with 26 points and 19 rebounds, both season-highs and his additional production was needed with Mirotic out and Derrick Rose struggling, not making a field goal after the first quarter.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Twelve of his points came in the fourth as the Bulls entered the last 12 trailing by four, very much looking like a game bound to get away.
“That play he tipped out to Doug was probably the play of the game when he hit the three,” said Hoiberg, referring to Gasol tapping a Rose miss out to Doug McDermott for a triple at the 7:37 mark, giving the Bulls an 82-79 lead.
“Pau did everything for us tonight. This was not our best energy game of the season but we kept at it and finally got a spurt to pull away. Good times or bad times, we have to play through those stretches.”
Rose finished with 11 points and nine assists, shooting three of 17, and it took Jimmy Butler awhile to get going offensively as well, hitting a couple jumpers late to tally 19 points with six rebounds and three assists.
A tough Butler drive and 3-point play put the Bulls back up by four with five minutes remaining and Gasol hit an 18-footer to essentially restore order the next time down.
“We know we have room for improvement,” Gasol said. “We can’t get complacent, can’t just be happy to win games. We’re gonna be challenged a lot.”
McDermott scored 11 off the bench, and Joakim Noah played 35 minutes, scoring nine with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.
The Bulls had a 62-49 rebounding edge and held the Nuggets, a team without a devastating scorer, to 39 percent shooting. They barely beat that amount, shooting slightly over 40 percent as their offense stalled during the second half, shooting 38 percent with 10 turnovers.
“I thought our ball movement early was fine and we were going great,” Hoiberg said. “In the middle of the game we weren’t that good and in the fourth we started playing again.”
Rose got Gasol going with his playmaking, as the Bulls played with pace early with 10 first-quarter assists. It slowed down after, as they finished with 22 helpers.
“My teammates definitely looked for me early on and I was able to knock down some (shots),” Gasol said. “The pick and roll is tough to cover because he’s a great penetrator and my guy has to be concerned with my pops. We put them in a predicament and made some plays.”
It nearly all became unraveled as the Bulls trailed entering the fourth after once having an 11-point lead. They didn’t play very disciplined, committing unforced turnovers and fouling late in the shot clock on the occasions they played strong defense.
The Nuggets bench gave them life with Will Barton’s athleticism giving them fits, as the guard scored 15 with eight rebounds and Darrell Arthur made six of 10 shots to score 13 in 19 minutes. Kenneth Faried scored 14 with eight rebounds and three assists.
It wasn't pretty but the Bulls woke up in just enough time to prevent disaster.