It was 6 PM, and all was well in Bullsland. Coming off of two consecutive solid wins, Chicago rolled into the United Center with the chance to keep the good juices flowing against the Rockets. Then the clock turned to 6:11, and we learned that Jimmy Butler would miss the game with a heel injury. Oh. Well then.
The Bulls should have never been in this game from the start, and I don’t know if that’s comforting or makes the loss that much more painful. In a game that saw me set a season high for number of times yelling at the TV, the Bulls fought, clawed, and made things exciting. Unfortunately, bad habits recurred at the worst times, and they collapsed under the weight of James Harden (literally) and crew, losing 121-116 in OT.
This game started out innocently enough. The Bulls looked confused on both ends, unable to reliably get buckets at a reasonable clip without their leader while giving up a boatload of open looks to the Rockets’ cadre of shooters. They missed a majority of them in the first frame, trailing by 2 after 12 minutes. Law of averages swung into effect hard and fast, though, and the Rockets exploited the Bulls’ porous defense to rip off a 36 point quarter that saw them lead by as much as 17. The Bulls went into the locker room facing an 11 point hole, and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of ways out.
Evidently inspired by the wonderful Yao Ming’s fantastic jersey retirement speech, Chicago stormed the gates with a purpose to open the 2nd half. They ran, cut and dunked with purpose, fighting back into the game with some solid defense that was just as much a byproduct of the Bulls’ effort as it was the Rockets’ incompetence. Taj Gibson in particular was everywhere, dunking on fools with purpose and vigor. There were hustle plays abound, with Rajon Rondo at one point chasing Eric Gordon into the backcourt for a steal and assisting Doug McDermott for a transition dunk. They outscored the Rockets 32-19 in the 3rd, waltzing into the 4th with another slim 2 point lead.
For a while, it really did look like the Bulls had this one. Michael Carter-Williams was played his best ball of the year, hitting numerous absurd driving shots to the tune of 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists (all season highs). Meanwhile, the Rockets struggled shaking off their funk. Ryan Anderson was absolute dog food, going 0-7 from the field and failing to register anything in the box score except for rebounds (4), fouls (5), and turnovers (1).
Sadly, if there’s one thing you can count on in this world, it’s late game Bulls incompetence. After opening an 8 point lead with 2:45 to go, the Bulls collapsed in embarrassing fashion. The Bulls committed 2 turnovers and a shot cock violation, James Harden made a step back jumper, and we proceeded into overtime. After Houston opened the frame with 5 straight points, Dwyane Wade answered with a three pointer of his own. Down 4 with 2 minutes left, Carter-Williams made another absurd falling layup and was fouled with a chance to pull the Bulls within 1. He missed the free throw, but the rebound fell right in his lap, and he dribbled off to hit a baseline jumper. Tie ball game.
I would be remiss to not mention that the very next play would feature the worst call I’ve ever seen in a basketball game. Harden jumped onto the back of Michael Carter-Williams, pancaking him into the ground. Carter-Williams was called for the foul, his 6th of the game. It was truly a divine gift from above; an egregiously awful call by Tony Brothers, long considered one of the NBA’s very worst referees. There was no gray area here, not even a place to play devil’s advocate and say, “well, Carter-Williams DID do this right there….”. James Harden committed a blatant offensive foul on MCW, and was rewarded handsomely for it. Such is life.
Still, to put all the blame on Brothers for the loss would be misguided. A couple possessions later, up 1, the Bulls were thrown a life preserver when Trevor Ariza was called for a mysterious kicked ball off the inbound (really just reinforcing the fact that I wouldn’t let Tony Brothers referee an elementary school game), adding 13 seconds to the :01 shot clock for the Bulls. Luckily for the Rockets, Fred Hoiberg can’t draw an inbounds play to save his life, and the Bulls threw it away on the drive to the basket. Harden would get a dubious and-1 call on a jumper the next time down, and the Bulls never led again.
The Bulls got screwed. They know they got screwed. The Rockets probably know they got screwed as well. The L2M ref report will come out, and confirm that they got screwed. Unfortunately, screwed won’t give them the win back. However, they will have a chance to channel their anger into inspired basketball, as they head to Sacramento on Monday night to face the perpetually-hopeless Sacramento Kings. Let’s hope Tony Brothers is far, far away.
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