Bulls

Drained Bulls escape from Indiana after Jimmy Butler's game-winner

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Drained Bulls escape from Indiana after Jimmy Butler's game-winner

Exuberance on the bench, relief on the floor, and then…indifference in the locker room.

That was the way to best describe the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls’ heart-stopping 98-96 win over the Indiana Pacers, courtesy of Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic perfectly executing a drawn up play to leave Paul George and George Hill confused with 3.7 seconds left as Butler nailed a 14-foot jumper.

From heart-stopping to heart stopped, it could be said, as the Bulls had to make do without Taj Gibson for the second half of an ugly game with a rib contusion and Derrick Rose gamely playing with a bruised or hyperextended left elbow, which all but took away his ability to drive to the basket.

It was moments before the Detroit Pistons sealed a win against an Oklahoma City Thunder team without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, so the lack of buoyancy wasn’t due to the Bulls missing a chance to make up a half-game on the then-eighth seeded Pistons, although they won the season series with the Pacers if the two should have identical records after 82 games.

But after Game No. 74, the locker room was subdued, to say the least.

[HONDA ROAD AHEAD: Bulls scrambling for their playoff lives]

Perhaps two days of pushing it competitively after weeks of forgetting what the exercise felt like got to them—or it could be this team was worn out and drained after an escape they likely wouldn’t have come away with if not for an opponent intent on self-destruction.

“A lot of sore bodies out there, you could just see the way we were moving,” Hoiberg said. “We were slow motion going from defense to offense. You could tell with the shots, a couple shot clock violations, we weren’t moving well in that direction. Give our guys credit for making big plays when they had to.”

A fourth quarter Hoiberg admitted was “ugly,” featured 26 total points as the Bulls and Pacers combined to shoot 24 percent (11 for 45), with 10 turnovers, with the Bulls battling fatigue while the Pacers battled themselves.

“A really ugly fourth quarter, I thought, on the offensive end,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we stayed in it by guarding them. I thought our bench was terrific.”

If there was beauty, it came in the form of Mirotic’s decisive jumpers as he went on one of those team-saving runs in the second quarter, abandoning the pump fakes and hitting triples off passes from teammates who were looking for him wherever he was on the floor.

In fact, his second-quarter performance of 15 points was better than what any of his teammates could accomplish in four quarters, as the Bulls needed every one of Mirotic’s game-high 28 points, off seven 3-pointers.

“I felt great. Coach found me some open shots and I was able to hit them,” Mirotic said. “We’re playing with a different mentality since our meeting a couple days ago. Even with our loss to Atlanta, we played better than (before).”

His shooting essentially saved them before Butler could, as Butler was busy tracking George, who scored 20 with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals. Ian Mahinmi’s activity and Myles Turner’s energy was almost too much for the Bulls to handle, as they nearly negated Mirotic with an 8-0 run to end the first half after falling behind by 10.

Turner scored twice in a row in the midst of the Bulls’ nearly debilitating drought that gave the Pacers a 94-93 lead. The Bulls made just one field goal in nine minutes, but unlike Monday’s drought in Atlanta, the defense enabled them to stay within striking distance.

“Tonight when we weren’t scoring we were at least keeping ourselves in the game because we made them take contested shots and rebounded the ball,” Hoiberg said. “Half their baskets were off our turnovers and on the break.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

So with the game tied, the Bulls put the ball in the hands of the best of the wounded, a man whose recent performances hasn’t inspired the most confidence.

But considering Rose was a one-armed bandit (4 of 15 shooting) and Pau Gasol was only slightly better (4 of 13), Butler (6 of 10 shooting) was the only realistic choice.

“I’m just glad my teammates and coaches have faith in me, to still shoot the ball late when I haven’t been making shots,” Butler said. “I have confidence in myself. It’s a good feeling knowing they want me to take that shot.”

“Excited to get a win, to tell you the truth. I know everybody plays entirely hard every night. When you come up short, it hurts. It was big to get a win. Guys are nicked up, hurting and to pull out a win like this on the road against a team like this is huge for us.”

When deadpanned that was displaying the excitement was all over his face, Butler finally relented, but said, “I’m tired, boss. I’m tired man.”

It's time for the Bulls to spin the point guard roulette wheel

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It's time for the Bulls to spin the point guard roulette wheel

Over the last couple seasons we've had some fun on our Bulls Pregame Live shows with the ever-changing cast of characters at the point guard position. We even brought the point guard roulette wheel to the show a couple years ago when Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Canaan, Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne all saw significant time at the position.

Grant began last season as the starter, followed by Kris Dunn and Payne with a little Ryan Arcidiacono mixed in.

But this season was supposed to be different. Dunn showed enough in his 52 game stint (13.4 points, 6 assists per game) in 2017-18 that he entered training camp as the unquestioned starter, with Payne and Arcidiacono as backups. The front office and coaching staff expected the 3rd year guard out of Providence to establish himself as a quality starter with elite skills at the defensive end.

Now, after playing just one regular season game, Dunn has been sidelined again, this time with a sprained left MCL suffered in his debut at Dallas Monday night. He's expected to miss 4-6 weeks of action, which should get him back on the court sometime in early December, right about the same time Lauri Markkanen is expected to return from his elbow injury.

So, what does Fred Hoiberg do now? Initially, you can expect Payne to replace Dunn in the starting lineup, with newly signed Shaq Harrison getting a look in the backup role. In case you don't know much about Harrison, he's an undrafted four-year player out of Tulsa, who spent most of the last two seasons in the NBA G-League. Like Dunn, Harrison is a physical 6'4" defense-first player who should be able to pressure some of the elite point guards the Bulls will face in the coming weeks. The front office showed their level of interest in Harrison's potential by signing him to a two-year NBA contract which includes a guaranteed salary for this season.

The Bulls also signed former Marian Catholic H.S. star Tyler Ulis to a two-way contract after he was released by Golden State in the final cutdown. Ulis started 58 games for Phoenix over the last two seasons, and is lightning quick in the open court. Problem is, he's generously listed at 5'10" which could create some serious issues at the defensive end.

And then there's always Arcidiacono, a Hoiberg favorite who's fundamentally sound, a solid defender and a decent outside shooter. Arcidiacono didn't play in Dallas Monday with Dunn back as the starter and it will be interesting to see how he's used with the coaching staff searching for answers at the position.

From my perspective, the Bulls' best option might be not going with a point guard at all in the starting lineup. Zach LaVine is on the hottest offensive streak of his young career, and he's most effective with the ball in his hands. LaVine played a lot of point guard during his rookie season in Minnesota, and he's more than capable of pushing the ball in transition.

Yes, I know having LaVine defend some of the high-scoring point guards around the league is not an ideal formula for success. The Bulls could move Justin Holiday to the shooting guard position, and see if he can match up defensively against opposing point guards. Again, not ideal.

The Bulls will be facing the likes of Kemba Walker, Trae Young, Steph Curry and Chris Paul over the next week and a half, and going without a true point guard might create defensive issues that are impossible to overcome. That's why you should expect to see Harrison take on a significant role in the upcoming games, since he's the only point guard currently available on the roster that has the physical skills to replicate in some fashion what Dunn brings on the defensive end.

Any way you look at it, the Bulls will be in survival mode over the next six weeks, trying to scratch out as many wins as they can until Markkanen and Dunn are healthy enough to get back on the court.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Reaction to Kris Dunn's knee injury and where Bulls go from here

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Reaction to Kris Dunn's knee injury and where Bulls go from here

Kelly Crull, Mark Strotman and Will Perdue react to the news that Kris Dunn will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a knee injury.

[MORE: It's time for the Bulls to spin the point guard roulette wheel]

00:55     Strotman reacting to the injury, expectations now for team

3:00        Perdue on impact on defense

4:55        Expectation on who will get majority of minutes moving forward at PG

7:40        Where Bulls are mentally as a team 

11:30     How Hoiberg will approach the options at point guard

12:55     Will the Bulls consider tanking again?

14:50     Making the case for LaVine to run point with Blakeney at the 2

16:05     How Dunn’s injury could impact Markkanen’s return

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: