Jimmy Butler motioned for a posting Nikola Mirotic to get out of the way, giving the appearance he was headed to the basket when in reality, he just wanted a better view of the basket.
Perhaps feeling the energy in the building after he was cascaded with MVP chants midway through the fourth, he launched a classic “bad shot, good shot” that fell, three of his 14 fourth-quarter points as the Bulls began to pull away Monday night.
What began as a classic letdown game ended with the Bulls surviving and putting themselves halfway to the second round with a 91-82 win at the United Center, taking a 2-0 lead while holding serve at home.
What did they survive? Well, let’s see.
An 11-point first quarter, a game where Derrick Rose started 0-for-7 and Butler missed his first six three-point attempts.
They survived Taj Gibson, one of the unsung heroes in the opener, picking up three fouls in five minutes, rendering himself useless in the first half.
And of their 15 turnovers, seven occurred in the first quarter when they couldn’t get anything going.
All of that was forgotten when Rose, who rebounded to hit four of his last eight to score 15 with nine assists and seven rebounds in 38 minutes, hit a step-back contested jumper with 54.5 seconds remaining to finally close the door on a Bucks’ threat.
The headliner on this night was Butler, who scored a playoff career-high 31 points (21 in the second half), after initially setting that mark with 25 in the opener. Two of his points in the fourth came on a rim-rattling dunk over Bucks center Zaza Pachulia
“That one dunk was definitely huge. It gave us some confidence as a team,” Noah said. “After that he was really feeling himself.”
That was the flash, but the substance occurred minutes earlier when the Bulls actually trailed 74-71 early in the fourth as the Bucks went on a 6-0 run to start the period, before Butler launched his first of three made triples to tie the game.
“We wanted him to work the game,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I thought he had good shots (early). The movement was better in the second half.”
He tattooed his name on the fourth quarter by scoring 10 in a 13-0 Bulls run over the next three minutes.
“I was just being aggressive. Jo and Derrick were telling me to score,” Butler said. “Telling me to shoot and not to pass up any shots. I was feeling it a little bit.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd intimated the game was too pretty in the opener, words seem to foreshadow what was to come, when he said the Bucks’ early scoring in Game 1 was “fool’s gold”, and aside from Khris Middleton scoring 22, offense was hard to come by for the Bucks, who shot just 36 percent from the field.
The Bucks challenged everything from the start, though, getting up in the Bulls’ faces from the moment they crossed halfcourt. And when the Bulls actually had the space to create or execute, they either saw ghosts or lost concentration, unable to take advantage of any opening.
“The game was like we wanted it in the first quarter,” Kidd said. “It was at our pace — ugly and slow.”
It led to the Bulls shooting just 24 percent in the first quarter, creating the vision that a letdown could be forthcoming.
Luckily, they dragged the Bucks in the muck with them, not allowing the inexperienced team to get too far ahead. They controlled the boards, as Noah grabbed 19 in 32 minutes and Gasol didn’t let the endless double-teams discourage him, grabbing 16 rebounds in 33 minutes to help the Bulls to a 64-48 edge.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
There was plenty of muck, as both teams realized the pleasantries of the regular season was no longer necessary, as there were multiple skirmishes, resulting with an ejection for Bucks irritant Zaza Pachulia in the fourth quarter after an altercation with Mirotic—which could have consequences as Mirotic sustained a left quad strain and there’s concern about a possible concussion.
“It’s an emotional game,” Thibodeau said. “I want us to play with toughness but I also want us to play smart. So where do you stop? You stop right before it becomes physical.”
It wasn’t going to last long, as the Bulls were due for some execution, and scored 60 points in the two middle quarters—with a lot of help from Mike Dunleavy, who helped loosen up the Bucks defense with four three-pointers, including two late in the first half as the Bulls were reeling a bit.
But reeling a bit only matters but so much if you have closers on your side to take care of things late—the Bulls were just fortunate things didn’t get too far out of their reach on this night.