The Bulls saw a game for the taking, and took it.
They improved to 2-0 on their last Circus Trip, picking up a win against a Utah Jazz team that’s vastly improved over the years, a team that on paper presents nothing but matchup problems for them.
But in the Bulls’ 85-77 win at Vivint Smart Arena Thursday night, it was a defensive clinic in which they dragged the Jazz into the ugly muck road wins are made of and climbed out of it quicker to pull off their third straight road win.
Holding the Jazz to 51 points in the final three quarters and allowing just 39 percent shooting, the Bulls played as comfortably in a hostile environment as a veteran team is expected to—except this isn’t a veteran team, but one rapidly learning each other.
“We found a way, we hung on,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, as the Bulls didn’t completely close the door after taking a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter, with the Jazz charging late to make them sweat a bit.
“Offense, you’re going to have nights like this over the course of an 82-game schedule. It’s going to come and go.”
Nights like this, where the Bulls shot just 37 percent and only had eight assists, usually spelled losses over the last two seasons. Succumbing to late rallies, like Dante Exum hitting a 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds on the shot clock that pulled the Jazz within five at 2:32 left, had become commonplace.
But Dwyane Wade hit a jumper and motioned for the suddenly raucous crowd to sit down. And Taj Gibson blocked a Rodney Hood triple with under a minute left, after Jimmy Butler seemingly put the finishing touches on the night with a mid-range jumper to put the Bulls up seven with 1:10 left.
“You know it’s not gonna be pretty every night. A lot of games you play against certain teams it’s gonna be ugly,” Wade said. “It shows a lot about the character of the team to be able to pull out a win like this early in the season with a few men down like there was, but to be able to gut it out.”
The Jazz were without forward Derrick Favors and point guard George Hill, while the Bulls were without Rajon Rondo (ankle) and Doug McDermott (concussion), so there’s no apologies given as the Bulls take the first two games of the circus trip for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
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The leader of the muck was Butler, who put 25-point scorer Gordon Hayward on punishment for the night. Butler didn’t have the greatest offensive game himself but his 7-for-19 looked a lot better than Hayward’s 3-for-15 considering the results. Butler smothered Hayward, not allowing him any clean looks.
“He’s a good player,” Butler said. “I just go out there and compete. He is the one that makes their team go so if you can take him out of the game, you give yourself a great position to win.”
The Bulls were in a great position after halftime, even though they shot just 29 percent and trailed by two after Butler hit a triple at the buzzer, one of the few shots they hit.
“I tried to tell the guys altitude only affects you outside, they didn’t buy it,” Hoiberg said. “You gotta get that second wind. Your first group has to get it and then your second group.”
They were aided by Robin Lopez’ battling Jazz center Rudy Gobert to a standstill early and throughout, with Lopez grabbing six of his seven offensive boards in the first half.
Lopez finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds while Gobert tallied 16 with 13 rebounds in 40 minutes.
Wade woke up to start the third and the Bulls took control as six of their eight assists occurred in that 12-minute span.
“I told them at halftime, I love your fight,” Hoiberg said. “We’re sticking around, we’re hanging in there. I thought our guys came out the gate with really the only pace we had all night in the first eight minutes of the third.”
Wade scored 18 overall, as he, Butler and Lopez were the only ones in double figures.
“From an offensive standpoint, defensively we did what we wanted to do,” Wade said. “They denied a lot of stuff so assist numbers weren’t that high. But to be able to gut it out, it’s a great win for us.”