Jimmy Butler kicked his legs out and the ball swirled around, and around and stopped…before rolling in after the official’s whistle blew for a foul.
The pushback from the rim on an imperfect night for Butler seemed to capture his feelings perfectly.
The San Antonio Spurs stalked the Bulls after sleepwalking for 24 minutes, and Kawhi Leonard will probably be in Butler’s nightmares as he shadowed the two-time all-star all night — as the league’s best out-of-nowhere two-way players battled all night.
Butler went scoreless in the first half and his streak of 20-point games ended at 15 but he came away with the most important statistic as the Bulls ended their three-game losing streak and the Spurs’ 13-0 road streak to start the season with a perfectly predictable 94-88 win at the United Center Thursday night.
Dwyane Wade led the Bulls with 20 points, including a couple buckets when the Bulls were reeling late and needing some stability in the worst way, hitting Taj Gibson for an inside dunk with two minutes remaining.
This is what the Bulls do, author improbable storybook endings on national TV against quality opponents when the odds are stacked against them and public conversation begins to sway in the other direction after some puzzling losses.
“We talked about it after the Cleveland game — so that’s a scary thing,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, stopping himself at the notion he gave his team the same speech after their last win. “If we go out there with that type of focus, we’ll win a lot of games. It can’t just be against the top teams, it’s gotta be every night.”
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But with Doug McDermott back after missing 11 games and the stage of a national audience at home — the night was tailor-made for the Bulls to pull out a win like this, even without Butler being his usual self.
The Bulls held the Spurs to 40 percent shooting and 32 from 3-point land, while only giving up five free throws — the type of gameplan discipline that has been missing with the recent slippage.
“I think the big thing is right out the game we had a focus to us. We didn’t make any mistakes,” Hoiberg said. “The guys did a great job of following the game plan and executing what we wanted to do.”
And doing it with their leading scorer being held to half his average, they needed to ensure the Spurs’ margin for error was just as slim as theirs. McDermott provided a boost, hitting a triple and getting a fast break layup right when he entered, finishing with eight points in 25 minutes.
“I felt great, my wind was there,” McDermott said. “I was just a little rusty. I felt really good out there, no issues.”
Butler scored 13 on four of 14 shooting with nine rebounds, including two on the offensive end while the Bulls were trying to seal the win, with four assists and two steals in 38 minutes.
“I’ll take a night like that as long as we get the win,” Butler said.
Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP for his work against LeBron James, was the only starter aside from Pau Gasol to get a rhythm in a rhythmless game, scoring 24 with eight rebounds and five assists while doggedly defending Butler.
Leonard had two straight ridiculous 3-point plays that seemed awkward and prayer-like but pulled the Spurs to within six midway through the fourth quarter, pulling the Spurs back from an 18-point deficit.
The lead was built due to good defense, and timely contributions from the likes of Cristiano Felicio, who played second-unit minutes at center for the second straight game.
A tip-dunk brought the crowd to its feet, as he brings a level of athleticism that’s hard to match from any of his teammates, scoring nine points with seven rebounds in 18 minutes.
“He can change the pace of the game when he’s out there,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll keep him in the rotation a while to keep him ready and prepared. It was only a matter of time until we got him in there.”
Gibson and Robin Lopez (each scored 12) also helped seal the interior as the Spurs didn’t get much in the way of second chance points and the Bulls outrebounded them 50-44.
It seemed like the Spurs were sleeping and just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the Bulls, and of course, the expectation was for a Bulls collapse considering how putrid their fourth quarters have been recently.
Patty Mills kept shaking free of the Bulls defense to hit four triples while the Bulls couldn’t fully pull away, despite all five starters scoring in double figures and Rajon Rondo coming an assist shy of getting a triple-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
They won’t have many games where Butler and Wade aren’t the headliners, but then again, they won’t have many games where the defense actually picks up the slack against one of the more disciplined offensive teams in the league.
Butler didn’t score until midway through the third quarter, finally shaking free of Leonard in semi-transition for a short jumper to put the Bulls up 60-47.
But the Spurs began to wake up and nearly did more than make the Bulls sweat. But in these early tilts, the more desperate team usually wins.
And although the Bulls don’t want to admit it, they needed to play like a desperate team.