Beautiful basketball it was not, but a punchless slugfest was expected when the NBA schedule revealed the Bulls would play four games in five nights, with the Dallas Mavericks being the final opponent during the grueling stretch.
Factor in the previous night’s overtime win against Philadelphia and you had a tired Bulls team. Add in Joakim Noah’s deflating shoulder dislocation in the second quarter and you had an emotionally flat squad.
Veteran Dirk Nowitzki made some key plays down the stretch as the Bulls were teetering to put them away, 83-77, at the United Center.
Noah got tangled up with JaVale McGee underneath the basket early in the second quarter and his audible shriek of pain let everyone in the building know it was more than just a tweak, that he re-injured the shoulder that caused him to miss nine games last month.
The Bulls held it together long enough despite shooting just 37 percent for most of the night, taking a 10-point halftime lead until Nowitzki ended the little thread of rope the Bulls’ hope was hanging by, in hall of fame fashion.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
First he blocked a Derrick Rose floater when Rose was trying to tie the game with a little under two minutes remaining. After subsequently setting up Deron Williams for a triple, he hit one of his own in front of Taj Gibson with 2:15 remaining to give the Mavericks a 79-72 lead.
He hit another patented high-arching baseline jumper over Gibson two possessions later to give himself 21 and put some distance between his team and the reeling Bulls.
“No excuses,” Rose said. “We can’t blame that, we have to learn from it. It felt like we had a chance to win.”
The Bulls didn’t help themselves much, shooting two for 19 from 3-point range. Even the good looks came up short. Jimmy Butler missed all four of his attempts while Rose missed his two shots from there.
“I thought we had great looks, especially early,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We gave ourselves opportunities but there seemed to be a lid on the basket for us tonight.”
Rose and Pau Gasol had a little more juice than the rest of their teammates considering they didn’t participate against the 76ers, emphasis on “little more”, as they at times, lacked considerable spunk.
With Jimmy Butler coming off a 53-point performance, it was almost expected his legs would give out and it played true to form. When he got a steal for his first basket, Butler didn’t even rise up for an uncontested dunk—he softly laid it in, conserving the little energy he had.
“You think I was tired? I don’t know,” said Butler with a wry smile for a half-second. “It don’t matter. I didn’t do my job. I was a big part of the “L” tonight.”
Butler finished with just four points on 2 of 11 shooting, as everything came up front rim, a show of fatigue, and he was effectively harassed by Wesley Matthews. Rose scored 18 with four rebounds and two assists while Gasol scored 17 with eight rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes.
“He was tired,” Hoiberg said. “He played a ton of minutes with a superhero performance game, there’s no doubt about it. He was out there trying to battle through it, but it was tough after the overtime game last night.
They were the only two in double figures while Williams scored 18 with six assists for the Mavericks, including four triples. Both teams shot under 40 percent, as Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott contributed nothing offensively when called upon.
Mirotic was moved back to the bench in favor of Tony Snell considering his struggles but it didn’t benefit either, likely because of the fatigue but they couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
And with Noah’s injury, it’s likely they’ll have more chances to shine, as Fred Hoiberg will have to work magic with the personnel he’s been given—and the start of his task wasn’t pretty.