During his young NBA career, rookie Paul Zipser has learned to stay ready.
And on Thursday night, with the Bulls clinging to a narrow lead against the Warriors in the final minutes, Zipser was ready. And he buried the biggest shot of his career.
Cristiano Felicio had picked up his dribble just moments earlier, but the Brazilian center was able to pass over a double team from Steph Curry, who had left Zipser alone on the right wing. Zipser, who had missed his only other 3-point attempt that night, caught Felicio's pass and shot over closing wings in Andre Iguodala and Matt Barnes as the shot clock expired.
Zipser's triple was pure, giving the Bulls a 91-85 lead that effectively iced the game, pushing the Bulls' improbable home TNT Thursday streak to 18 games, while ending the Warriors' streak of 145 games without consecutive losses. For Zipser, it was a welcome return for the wing who had missed the last seven gamess with ankle tendinitis and was thrown into the fire against both the league's most daunting offense and defense.
But he stayed ready.
"Just have to be ready all the time," he said after the game. "You never know when the ball’s coming. You have to be ready."
Zipser logged 23 minutes in the Bulls' 94-87 victory, the same number he averaged during his 13-game stint in the rotation prior to his ankle injury. His nine points on 4-for-5 shooting and four rebounds didn't have the same pop as Jimmy Butler's 22 points or Bobby Portis' first double-double of the year in the box score, but Zipser was critical.
The Bulls employed a switch-heavy defense against the always-moving Warriors offense - especially in the final quarter in which Golden State scored 14 points - and the versatile 6-foot-7 Zipser gave them more options on how to defend the league's best offense. He recorded a steal in the second quarter that turned into a Bobby Portis 3-pointer, he contested a Klay Thompson layup at the rim and was rewarded in transition with a layup, and he made life difficult on a Warriors offense that was already struggling from the field.
"He can switch, he can guard," Butler said. "So he makes a lot of guys’ job easier. And then when me and him come together it’s basically the same size guy switching. We’re glad to have him."
Dwyane Wade praised the Bulls' attention to detail as the main reason why the defense, which had been torched by the Nuggets two days earlier, was much improved Thursday night. Zipser agreed.
"Of course if a defense switches you don’t have any ball movement. If you don’t have any ball movement nothing happens, so it’s a lot of 1 on 1," he said. "And if you contest every shot…we were pretty close to them and we did a great job."
The Warriors shot just 38 percent, including 20 percent from beyond the arc. In the fourth quarter, in which Zipser played all 12 minutes, Golden State went 6 of 23 from the field and incredibly missed all 11 of their 3-point attempts. Despite Zipser's defensive worth it was a mild surprise to see the rookie, who hadn't played since leaving early in the Bulls' 31-point loss in Golden State on February 8, close down the stretch.
"He really kind of solidified himself as our sixth man (before the injury) and a guy who’s closing games for us," Fred Hoiberg said. "Paul, we missed him, there’s no doubt about that. He’s got size, he’s got length, he can put it on the floor and he can really defend."
Like his performance Thursday, his numbers don't jump off the page. But he's found a role over the likes of fellow rookie and first-round pick Denzel Valentine, who was quiet in 14 minutes. The Bulls dealing Doug McDermott at Thursday's trade deadline also freed up 25 minutes on the wing, and based on Thursday's results those are minutes Zipser can plan on receiving.
Zipser won't be mistaken for McDermott on the perimeter, but his 3-point numbers have improved since entering the rotation; he's made 31 percent from deep since Jan. 15, up from the 14 percent he shot largely in garbage time. So despite having missed seven games and being out of action for more than 20 days, Zipser was ready when his number was called. The result was the biggest shot of his young NBA career.
"I knew I had to shoot it," Zipser said. "That’s always the best shot."