With the closest thing to a full deck the Bulls have had seemingly all season, they had a chance to right some of the wrongs from early in the season by way of beating an under-.500 team.
And with the tumultuous Sacramento Kings coming to town, the stage was set for the Bulls to win their third straight game, re-establish themselves with playoff positioning and inject some much-needed confidence, something they’re seemingly on the brink of.
Or they could give it away.
“Early in the year, I’m not sure we would’ve won this game,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, as his words illustrated what 20,000 people in the building were thinking Monday night.
But the Bulls max players wouldn’t let such a thing happen, as Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler combined to do it in different ways when times got direst, leading to a 109-102 win at the United Center.
It felt more like a decision than a win, but considering Pistons’ center Andre Drummond was tipping in a win for the team breathing down the Bulls’ necks just as the Bulls were giving it away, it seemed appropriate the Bulls’ players with the pedigree stepped forward to secure a win.
Because boy, it was dire.
After blowing a 12-point lead in the third quarter and watching Rudy Gay, Caron Butler and former Bull Marco Belinelli storm the United Center, Rose and Butler re-entered with the Bulls trailing by three and 8:40 remaining.
It went to five and held at 95-90 with 6:33 left, then the Bulls woke up.
“The guys got themselves in a big huddle and played the most important part of the game,” Hoiberg said.
With the Bulls flailing away, Rose hit two jumpers to spark a 10-0 run, shutting down the Kings’ opportunistic offense. His last gave the Bulls a 98-95 lead with 3:49 remaining, finishing with 18 points and four assists.
“Just taking what they’re giving me. I’m reading the play,” Rose said. “It was my teammates giving me the ball in position to actually do something.”
Butler didn’t have a banner night by any stretch, but his work on the offensive glass, tipping home a miss, getting a steal underneath the basket and then feeding Mike Dunleavy for a triple — his eighth helper of the night — to give the Bulls a 105-97 lead.
“We need to have that urgency for a longer stretch if we want to be successful,” Hoiberg said. “We played well for six minutes, luckily it was the last six of the game.”
The stars showed up late after the bench players carried them early in Pau Gasol’s return.
Taj Gibson had another workman-like performance with 18 points in 33 minutes, as he found himself guarding virtually every position on the floor.
Doug McDermott sparked the Bulls yet again, hitting four triples for 16 points, most of them in the first half as the Bulls appeared to gradually pull away from the game Kings. Justin Holiday hit three triples of his own, and Bobby Portis added some energy before the group faltered in the fourth.
“We’ve had games where we let that slip, where we got blown out being down by that much,” Rose said. “Hopefully we’re learning from it. But when we have a team down like this we have to keep them down.”
Luckily as Butler struggled to a 3-for-10 finish, they didn’t turn the ball over much, with just nine giveaways and tallying 28 assists while hitting 12 3-pointers.
With Butler’s struggles, they needed every bit of what Gasol could offer in his return after a four-game absence.
Gasol played 24 minutes and scored 14 points with 14 rebounds, while being tagged as being a primary defender on the best center in the game, DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins scored 19 with 17 boards, but he wasn’t the main reason the Kings got back in the game after falling behind 69-57 on a Dunleavy triple.
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The Bulls couldn’t bully the biggest bully in the game, but they could sure bother him. They double-teamed him and doubled him hard, forcing eight turnovers and taking him out of his rhythm, making him get his offense by going to the glass and doing unconventional things, like taking rebounds end to end for layups.
“Pau was great,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he guarded Cousins as well as anyone can play him, and he still got 19.”
In his stead, Gay and Caron Butler began hitting jumpers to keep things close, and surprisingly the Bulls’ perimeter defense started taking plays off, allowing the relentless Rajon Rondo and reserve guard Darren Collison to get to the basket almost at will.
Gay scored 18 with five rebounds, while Collison scored 19. Rondo scored 14 with five assists and four rebounds, while Butler added 10.
“Where before, if we had a lead, it got cut and we would go on a downward spiral,” Hoiberg said. “The urgency is finally helping us.”
But surprisingly, as things got tough, the Bulls buckled down a bit and showed something many weren’t sure they possessed.