LOS ANGELES — It was a battle of validation at Staples Center, as the Los Angeles Clippers sought to fight against the narrative that time has passed them by while the Bulls were out to prove they were as good as their record suggests and that this pattern is sustainable.
Dwyane Wade’s shooting was somewhat sustainable, as the Bulls jumped out to a 19-point lead but the Clippers roared back on the second night of a back-to-back to pull away late with a 102-95 win that the Bulls and maybe even Fred Hoiberg will kick themselves over.
“This is a great team that’s playing the best basketball in the league. We fought them and gave ourselves a chance,” Hoiberg said.
Jimmy Butler bodied up on Blake Griffin with 20.8 seconds left to force an awkward jumper at the top of the key but Griffin seemed to flail his legs to earn the attention of the officials to force a foul call.
The ensuing free throws made it a four-point game, and after the Bulls failed to convert on the next possession, Hoiberg was so incensed with the call he was ejected for the first time in his career as a coach — although he barely raised his voice.
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It completed a night that began promising but ended terribly as Griffin scored 26 points with 13 rebounds and five assists while Chris Paul scored 19 with eight assists.
The fourth quarter was disastrous, as the Clippers played like a team that’s been together for years and the Bulls played like a jumbled bunch with little direction. The effort was present, but the execution was lacking.
“We had a lot of fight, we didn’t give up,” Butler said. “The Clippers are playing extremely well right now. I liked the way we played. I don’t like the outcome but we can’t win them all.”
They resorted to way too many 3-pointers when things got tight and for some reason, Hoiberg stuck with the struggling Bobby Portis for the entire fourth quarter.
Mareese Speights lit up Portis and the Bulls for 16 points, including 11 in the fourth in what became a game of chicken between coaches Hoiberg and Doc Rivers. Robin Lopez had been having a good night, keeping DeAndre Jordan off the glass while scoring 10 points with six rebounds, but when Rivers turned to Speights, Hoiberg wanted to match Speights’ perimeter mobility.
“With them spacing the floor, having Taj guard Griffin, we felt we needed a guy that could close to Speights and we felt Bobby was that guy,” said Hoiberg, a man seemingly with not a lot of options at that point anyways.
The Bulls shot just four for 18 in the final 12 minutes, as their efficiency essentially dropped in every quarter after the hot start. Shooting two for 11 from three compounded matters, especially with no Jordan in the game to protect the rim.
Had they gone to the basket a little more, one wonders if Rivers would’ve been forced to pull Speights.
“I thought we had some good looks, they were taking the paint away,” Hoiberg said. “But I thought we had some good ones we didn’t knock down.”
Wade hit five triples to score 28 and Butler worked himself into a game at the foul line despite shooting five for 18, and scored 22 points. Rajon Rondo returned from a two-game absence to score nine with 10 rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes.
“He was in a great rhythm, hit his first couple, especially for a guy who’s not a shooter,” said Hoiberg of Wade. “Dwyane did that tonight, kept himself in a good rhythm.”
Wade wasn’t impressed with the first half lead, especially against a Clippers bunch that knows how to read a game and methodically claw themselves back into it. Wade’s triple at 7:18 left in the second gave the Bulls a 45-26 lead that quickly evaporated before halftime.
“In the NBA, leads are whatever,” Wade said. “I’m not all about the 20-point lead in the first half, especially on the road. A team is going to come back and the game is going to turn in their favor at some point.”
The Bulls’ bench was a problem yet again, as Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Isaiah Canaan and Jerian Grant couldn’t muster much of anything offensively, and couldn’t help the Bulls hold onto a slim lead.
The one time Portis hit a triple after a wild scrum, he euphorically jumped around in joy.
The next time down, Speights calmly knocked down a triple to negate Portis’ one positive contribution.
It wasn’t like the Clippers’ improved bench had their way with the Bulls, as Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and others matched the Bulls’ futility — except for Speights’ 16 points.
And then Crawford, the former Bull who played with Hoiberg on some forgettable Bulls teams in the early part of the millennium, essentially put the game out of reach with a triple to make it 92-87 with 3:14 left.
A reverse layup later helped create a little more distance as the Bulls’ futility prevented them from capitalizing on a hot start, as they dropped the third game in their circus trip — and lost a little composure along the way.