CHARLOTTE— Only the Bulls.
Only the Bulls could enter the second game of a back-to-back looking as lifeless and disinterested as they have for the past week, then put together a performance that confounded, amused and reinvigorated the locker room.
Only the Bulls could turn a card game called "guts" into a rallying cry after a rousing pregame speech from Dwyane Wade.
Their 115-109 win over the Hornets certainly doesn't put them back in the top eight of the Eastern Conference, nor will it put true fear in the hearts of Detroit, Milwaukee or Miami, but they did show a bit of a pulse for the first time in awhile.
Speaking of pulses, Nikola Mirotic showed he had more than a little after being listed as inactive against the Celtics, pumping both of his fists after hitting a corner triple to put the Bulls up 100-94 with a little over four minutes remaining, giving him 21 points.
He added a few more to score 24 with 11 rebounds in clearly, his best game of the season. Having been persona non grata for the last three games from the coaching staff and out of the rotation since going two for seven against Detroit, he re-emerged as a valuable reserve.
"It means a lot. I was inactive and didn't play the last three games and coach wanted me to be ready so I've been working and being in the weight room, getting up extra shots and came into the game with energy," Mirotic said. "I think that energy helped me to get some good shots, to be very solid on defense."
Being pulled to the side by Wade and Jimmy Butler—players whose lives he was supposed to make easier with his versatile skills—either gave him confidence or put the bullseye on his back.
"Just desperate. When you're desperate you do things you need to do in this league," Wade said. "Me and Jimmy talked to him, told him we needed him. We're not gonna make the playoffs without him. And let him know we need his focus, his ability to shoot the ball. He came right in and fired it up."
Perhaps the insertion of Rajon Rondo back into the starting lineup had something to do with it, perhaps that desperation manifesting itself as the self-proclaimed "three alphas" were reunited for the first time since Dec. 30 in Indianapolis.
"Yeah, that's what I came here for. But it's a process I went through. It didn't kill me," Rondo said.
Reunited and it felt so good—at least it did with Rondo's jump shot as he hit his first three triples in the first quarter, taking heed of Fred Hoiberg's desire to play with pace and speed.
"I just tried to do what I do best, set the pace," Rondo said. "Think we got off to a great start, we were up 10 or 12 in the first quarter. That was my only goal, get us off to a good lead. Get guys easy shots, get Jimmy easy looks, to the free throw line, along with D-Wade."
It resulted in the Bulls having 29 assists on 41 field goals, a ratio they hadn't seen in ages. Hoiberg gushed when talking about the ball movement, a differing look than the man who appeared distressed and didn't have many answers for the recent events.
"It was a beautiful thing to watch. I said, ‘put this thing on loop, guys'," Hoiberg said. "This is how we want to play. We were sharing it, making the unselfish play. The ball wasn't sticking in anyone's hands and we were getting it into the paint and kicking it out with great spacing."
Hitting 14 triples—five from Mirotic—was evidence that at least on occasion, the Bulls can play to Hoiberg's vision.
And Rondo is clearly the eyes and brains of the operation when he's empowered and the rest of the team is on the same page.
"It looked nice. It looked really good," Butler said. "Everybody was taking the open looks they were getting. It looked really great, even when we came in here and watched it, that's the way basketball is supposed to be played."
Rondo's 20 points, six assists and seven rebounds paced the Bulls in the energy department as he kept Hornets point guard Kemba Walker busy on defense, allowing Butler and Wade to play more off the ball.
Butler and Wade worked themselves into the game and were used less in pick and rolls, a strategy that led to them each shooting eight of 15 to score 23, as Butler added 11 assists and six rebounds.
It wasn't all gravy, as the Hornets nearly made the Bulls do more than sweat late, as Walker kept attacking and Jeremy Lamb admirably filled Nic Batum's shoes with 26 points as all five Hornets starters scored in double figures.
Butler sealed the game making three of four free throws, being fouled after Walker scores, then blocked a Lamb dunk in the final seconds to end the last threat.
Playing Rondo and Mirotic represented a slight shift in what Hoiberg has been doing recently, trying to get some of the younger guys in to play extended minutes.
Ten Bulls participated, although Joffrey Lauvergne only played three minutes and Cameron Payne played 11 minutes—missing all six of his shot attempts. But Payne is ahead of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, so Hoiberg didn't completely abandon the "evaluation" experiment.
But if he goes with the veterans and somewhat dependable players, it's perhaps the Bulls' best chance to creep back into this muddled Eastern Conference playoff picture.
"We all know what it's gonna take on the road, especially a game like this," Butler said. "Anything can happen. I know the way we wanted to fix it. We did a decent job of it. I don't think it's out of reach but we definitely gotta win some games."
And with 16 games remaining, nobody knows if this is the final big alteration before the season finishes out.
"It's only so many things you can change up," Rondo said. "We were supposed to make a push and I would love to be in the starting lineup. But you never know."
Because the Bulls.
Only the Bulls.