With his old teammate Robin Lopez in front of him and his feet at the United Center sign on the floor, Damian Lillard threw caution to the wind as he sensed the end was near.
With redemption on his mind and the Bulls on the ropes, Lillard unleashed a long triple that took the air out of the building with five minutes and pushed the Portland Trailblazers lead to 10.
The Bulls got closer but a few disastrous minutes spelled doom in their 112-110 loss Monday at the United Center, their third defeat in four games as they were without Rajon Rondo, who was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team earlier in the day.
Dwyane Wade scored 34 points with four rebounds and four assists in his return from a one-game rest while Jimmy Butler scored 26 with seven rebounds and five assists but the Bulls shot just 42 percent and committed 15 turnovers, many of them unforced against a defense that isn’t known for stopping opponents.
Lillard hit free throws in the final minute after the Bulls pulled to within three with 18.2 seconds left but his triple was a backbreaker.
It gave the visitors the push they needed after trailing to start the fourth, going on a 13-3 run while the Bulls missed 11 of their 13 shots to start the period, halting a relatively smooth offensive game to that point.
“They made plays, I thought we hung our heads, got a little deflated a bit. You can’t do that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Without Rondo to perhaps settle them down, much of the burden relied on Wade and Butler to create as Jerian Grant couldn’t repeat his magic from their earlier meeting when he scored 18 and had five steals.
On this night, Grant went one for seven in 23 minutes and amassed just 16 assists, five off their season average.
And when their offense abandoned them, they couldn’t get enough stops against a potent Trailblazers team that loves playing fast and loose. Chicago native Evan Turner hit two big baskets during the run, as he hit five of six on the night to score 11.
“Tonight was an offensive battle and they’re better at that game than us,” Wade said. “You don’t want to lose at home. Just not being aggressive defensively. Can’t let them get to their spots.”
It obscured the fact the Bulls held the Blazers to 47 points in the second half and achieved most of their pregame goals: keeping the Blazers from hitting 10 triples, winning the free-throw battle (38-18) and outscoring them in the open floor (26-9).
The Bulls harassed Lillard into one of his worst shooting nights of the season in a blowout win a few weeks ago and he made amends with a 26-point, seven-assist night.
“We allowed them to get to the basket,” Wade said. “Highest scoring backcourt in the league for a reason.”
He looked to start off on the right foot from the jump, taking advantage of Grant off the dribble, and his backcourt mate C.J. McCollum wasn't far behind.
The Bulls’ defense was confused on rotations, allowing Lillard, McCollum and Allen Crabbe to feast early on. McCollum ran around screens and read a slow-reacting Bulls defense, nailing jumpers over flat-footed defenders.
Crabbe scored 17 off the bench while McCollum hit 10 of 19 to score 24, as the Blazers hit nine triples at 39-percent accuracy.
The trio of guards combined for 45 in the first half and the Bulls needed to make an adjustment.
“We want to get up and put pressure on that team when they get into their stuff,” Hoiberg said. “A high powered backcourt, as high powered as you’re gonna play all year. They got free and hit long, contested two’s. That’s what we wanted to force them into.”
So Butler started the third quarter defending Lillard and it seemed to throw off the Blazers’ rhythm. The Bulls took a 67-66 lead minutes into the second half and held off the duo until McCollum’s 25-foot triple right at the end of the third.
Butler wanted the matchup to start the game but Hoiberg, aware of the rigorous stretch the Bulls are in, waited until it was halfway through before unleashing his best defender on Lillard.
He dropped in another two minutes into the fourth to give the Blazers a 90-89 lead.
By then, they were in a dogfight and unable to slow down the hot shooting Blazers.