When you lose six out of seven, style points isn’t what you’re looking for.
Scoring 100 points isn’t what you’re looking for.
Heck, shooting 40 percent isn’t what you’re looking for.
For the Bulls, they weren’t really in the conversation for any of those benchmarks but in a situation where they needed to stop the bleeding, the Indiana Pacers played foil for a night as the Bulls momentarily ended the misery with a 90-85 win at the United Center.
It was sealed by a defensive stop with Jimmy Butler forcing a 3-point airball from Paul George, Nikola Mirotic shutting off a shot for former teammate Aaron Brooks and Dwyane Wade doing his best Peanut Tillman impression for a cross-court interception and dunk with 1.2 seconds left to complete the scoring.
“Just reading it, I played free safety on it, baited them a little bit,” said Wade, who led the Bulls with 21 in 32 minutes in his best showing on the back end of a back-to-back this season. “I kinda played possum and he lofted it up there and I was able to steal it and close the game.”
Speaking of misery, Nikola Mirotic was the main driving force, scoring in double figures for the fifth straight game, putting up 21 off the bench, including a redemption-like shot-clock buzzer-beating long two with 21.2 seconds left against suffocating defense, putting the Bulls up 88-85 — one possession after George nailed a triple in his face.
Pounding his chest afterward in a rare show of emotion, it let on to how much pressure he’s been feeling to perform.
“I was really emotional. It was important for me. It was a great shot, the game was there,” Mirotic said. “I was expressing myself a bit. I know you guys aren’t used to that. My head is down, not too much emotion. But today I was feeling good from the beginning. So why not?”
His play was necessary as the Bulls’ offense stalled again in the second half after an energetic first half, an expected response after two bad losses on the road around Christmas Day.
Reeling after a 12-point third quarter, Mirotic hit a couple critical baskets when the Bulls went extended stretches without scoring a basket, in a game where they shot just 38.6 percent from the field.
Butler was three of 12 for 16 points, going nine of 12 from the foul line. Jerian Grant hit big shots off the bench to score 10 and Taj Gibson chipped in 10 in 22 minutes.
“I’m playing simple basketball, I need to keep building from this point,” Mirotic said. “I know my weaknesses, I know my strengths."
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Speaking of misery, it’s probably Fred Hoiberg when he’s trying to explain the fourth quarter dropoff in terms of production as the Bulls suffered from it in spurts but scored 27, although the porous third quarter meant the bar was set low and thus hard to surpass.
Not playing Rajon Rondo was a solution for Hoiberg, a tough one considering how well Rondo played early in the game when the Bulls jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first half but the offense soon stalled thereafter, allowing the Pacers to crawl back into it.
“It was just the flow of the game,” Hoiberg said about sitting Rondo. “Dwyane was out there making a lot of great plays and we put (Michael) Carter-Williams in for his defense. It was great to have him out there.”
On one possession, Rondo grabbed three offensive rebounds and setting up open shots before Mirotic finally hit a corner three, with Rondo nearly outrebounding the Pacers by himself in the first quarter.
But even with the lead, the Bulls were barely over 40 percent and it came back to nearly haunt them dearly later.
They went seven minutes without a field goal for the Bulls until Wade’s glassing floater found the net while being fouled in the first minute of the fourth, completing a 3-point play. He hit another one soon after, giving the Bulls some level of breathing room that wouldn’t last.
A couple Myles Turner baskets cut the Bulls’ lead to 80-78, but they weren’t much of a threat inside, going to the line 10 times compared to the Bulls’ 28 free-throw attempts, and shooting better from the Bulls, albeit at a 42 percent clip.
Brooks almost stole the game for the Pacers off the bench with 19 points and seven assists, hitting three of the Pacers’ nine triples. He, along with Al Jefferson provided enough firepower off the bench to keep them in it, Jefferson early and Brooks late.
Speaking of misery, it was how Butler defended George, the All-Star whom Butler is most compared to, along with Kawhi Leonard. After Leonard paced the Spurs to a Christmas Day win, Butler took his likely frustration from both ends out on his Olympic teammate, holding George to six for 14 shooting and getting a critical steal on George followed by calling timeout with 1:36 left.
“You will not find a tougher back to back assignment in the league than Leonard last night and Paul George tonight,” Hoiberg said. “He spent so much energy on the defensive end of the floor. He takes a lot of pride in his defense, you could tell, and he was getting tired.”
But the Bulls played with enough verve and poise to stop the bleeding — by any means necessary.