It didn’t feel like last rites, although the Pistons putting the Bulls on life support for the right to earn a playoff spot probably felt like a cruel reminder of days long passed.
There was no sugarcoating it from Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, a man who has the experience and panache to declare the Pistons-Bulls tilt “the biggest game of the season”, and his team backed it up with a 94-90 win at the United Center Saturday night.
Flagrant fouls that weren’t really flagrant were given, and the Hack-a-Shenanigans were employed from Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to stop Andre Drummond from dominating inside—or just to get his group to regroup in the fourth quarter.
Jimmy Butler played out of his mind and probably his body with his first-career triple-double, tallying 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists (both career-highs) in 39 sweat-soaked minutes as the Bulls were without Derrick Rose (elbow) and Taj Gibson (ribs).
But in the end, the Bulls dropped back to .500, the Pistons continued their rise to a playoff spot, as one team played the night before and the other had Friday night to rest.
It was hard to tell given the fourth quarter, as the Bulls’ looked gassed all around, leading to a 5-for-20 start to the fourth quarter that turned a seesaw game to a 90-83 Pistons lead with 44.3 seconds left.
That stretch will likely haunt them all spring if they have to sit at home for the first round as opposed to playing.
“We missed a couple shots that seemed to hit every part of the rim but still did not go in,” Hoiberg said. “They just seemed to keep bouncing out. We missed a couple threes and layups and that will have you chasing the lead.”
Now they’re chasing the Pistons, whose magic number is three (any combination of three Pistons wins or Bulls losses will clinch a playoff spot for Detroit), along with the Indiana Pacers, as the Bulls are two games back with six to play.
If there’s a glimmer of hope for the last two weeks, the Bulls’ defense looked like it did early in the season, holding the explosive Pistons to 42 percent shooting—but led to more lament than optimism.
“If we defended like this all year, we would not be in this position to begin with,” said center Pau Gasol, who along with Butler was the only starter to score in double figures with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
Butler, despite his physical limitations with his left knee, played point guard essentially and was choosy on offense as his jump shot hasn't been working in awhile, willed himself to 10 of 25 shooting.
“Jimmy did everything for us,” Hoiberg said. “He rebounded the heck out of the ball and was playing the role of facilitator. He was the guy who had it going for us.”
Butler was exhausted afterwards, well-aware of the circumstances surrounding the contest.
“It’s just tough. I just feel like I could’ve done more,” Butler said. “Made some more shots, play better defense. There’s always room for improvement. All I want to do is win, triple-double or no triple double. I didn’t do my job, we as a whole didn’t do our job.”
He gave some temporary optimism, as the Pistons nearly gave it away after their 90-83 lead.
In a span of less than five seconds, a three-possession game went to a one-possession game as Butler hit a triple, followed by Pistons guard Reggie Jackson pushing off on Mike Dunleavy for the ensuing inbounds pass for an offensive foul.
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Butler hit two more free throws and the game was 90-88 with 38.9 seconds left. Then Butler took what Bulls fans felt was a charge on a Jackson drive but his heels were above the line on the restricted area line, making it a blocking foul upon review.
Almost everyone who witnessed the review agreed with the assessment.
“Jimmy gave up his body to make that play,” Gasol said. “Unfortunately for an inch or two, that call didn’t go our way.”
Butler, who took a shot to the ribs on that play, was straightforward saying, “"It wasn’t a charge, it was a block. Not too much to say about it.”
Butler couldn’t hit a triple on the next possession with the Bulls down four, as the fourth devolved into a lack of movement offense from the Bulls—perhaps due to the lack of options Hoiberg had at his disposal.
Nikola Mirotic reverted back to form, hitting just two of seven shots. And Doug McDermott followed suit, going 1-for-5 from the field. Meanwhile, the Pistons had five starters in double figures as they unleashed the forward tandem of Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris on the Bulls.
They combined for 14 of 28 shooting with 37 points, keeping the Bulls occupied and frustrated, if not flustered.
Butler kept them occupied on the other end, nearly achieving a triple-double before halftime and realized the feat minutes into the third quarter, as he played de facto point guard—the best position for him considering his physical state.
Butler’s inside score against Marcus Morris pulled the Bulls to within 80-77, and once Van Gundy pulled Drummond following his eighth and ninth missed free throws of the night (on 10 attempts), the Bulls waltzed to the lane for two layups on subsequent possessions.
But things dried up from there, allowing the Pistons to pull away and all but secure a playoff berth to end a six-year drought, limiting the Bulls to just 38.6 percent shooting.
“Unfortunately we have nights like that and it came to us in a very important game of the year,” Hoiberg said.
The Aaron Brooks experience activated in the third, as Van Gundy’s worst fears started to come true, hitting a couple wild floaters and a walk-up triple, igniting the offense. Then one of Hoiberg’s many fears came to life, as the Bulls lost track of some Pistons shooters, leading to a 70-65 Pistons lead after three quarters.
“We defended well,” Hoiberg said. “Our pace got slow and we struggled by not having someone put pressure on the rim.”
Neither team could get separation all night, and finally it was the Pistons who achieved it on the scoreboard and then in the standings, perhaps knocking down the Bulls for a count they can’t emerge from.