Maybe it was the mask all along.
Derrick Rose had one of his quietest, worst halves before the ditching the mask that covered his recovering fractured orbital bone, helping pull the Bulls from near disaster.
The Bulls survived Thursday against the Los Angeles Clippers when Chris Paul’s leaning triple try bounced off the rim, with an 83-80 final at the United Center. Fred Hoiberg’s sigh of relief was written across his face afterward, and the players said he got more intense through the three-game losing streak.
“Huge. We had to get this one,” the usually buttoned-up coach said, admitting the urgency of the moment. “This was a huge one for us after losing three in a row. We needed this win on our home floor. We found a way to win, even though it wasn’t pretty. It was a brawl out there.”
Neither team shot over 36 percent, and each had extended stretches of futility that made it nearly unwatchable. The Clippers shot 34 percent, and the Bulls barely topped that figure at 35.6, as their futility usually takes place at the worst possible time, the fourth quarter.
If not for Rose’s nine points in the period, the Bulls would be in panic mode with a four-game losing streak, their first since December of 2013.
His floater with 45.4 seconds left put the Bulls up six and finished off his 11-point evening.
“It was something I just tried,” Rose said of removing his mask. “The next game it might be on. They told me a couple days ago, I could play without the mask. I went out and forgot it and just said I’m going to leave it off.”
After going scoreless in the first half and looking a bit out of it through three quarters, he turned it up late, and Aaron Brooks made his reappearance in the rotation with 10 points in 20 minutes.
The duo actually finished the fourth quarter together, with Rose playing more off the ball — another change in a season full of anything but continuity for the Bulls.
“I thought Aaron gave us a great burst of energy,” Hoiberg said. “He got into the paint, made plays and hit a 3. With Aaron in there, it would open up the floor.”
Luckily Rose’s counterpart Paul wasn’t having a banner night either, as Paul shot just five for 16 and committed critical errors down the stretch when the Clippers were mounting a comeback.
Pau Gasol took charge, at one point blocking three straight shots inside and even hitting three 3-pointers for the first time in his career, scoring 24 points with six rebounds.
“He was passionate tonight,” Rose said of Gasol. “When you see how hungry he was, you can’t do nothing but give him the ball and see what he’s working with.”
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Jimmy Butler scored 14 with eight assists and five rebounds in a contest no high school basketball coach would ever consider showing his team as a model for how the game is to be played.
The Clippers scored 30 points in the middle two quarters, begging to be blown out, but it was the Bulls who were begging for a competitive game. Not even Blake Griffin’s ejection could make the Bulls take complete control after he whacked Taj Gibson across the head accidentally, resulting a flagrant 2 verdict from the officials.
The Bulls missed nine straight shots in the fourth after leading by 10 while the Clippers suddenly caught fire, as Josh Smith nailed consecutive 3-pointers to tie the game at 66 with 7:19 left.
Then Butler hit one of his four field goals, a long jumper, then took a charge on Lance Stephenson. After Gibson had a follow-up dunk to a Brooks miss, it seemed the Bulls would cruise somewhat to a win.
But nothing was that easy, as the last couple weeks have shown — but it sure feels better with a win, no matter how it was obtained.
On this night, it was survival.