It shouldn’t have been a heartbreaker. It should have been a hope-lifter. After all, without Derrick Rose — who missed the game with a neck injury — it looked like the Bulls were going to get blown right out of the Pepsi Center…especially after the Nuggets built a 19-point third quarter lead.
But remember that “pure defiance” I was talking about after Chicago’s comeback win over the Suns? Apparently, it exists even when the team’s All-Star point guard isn’t able to suit up. Against all odds, the Bulls came back behind:
C.J. Watson (a game-high 33 points, 11-for-22 from the field, 2-for-4 from downtown, 9-for-12 from the line), who did his best Rose impression in the fourth by going on a personal 6-0 run to turn a 94-91 deficit into a 97-94 lead with 30 seconds left. Watson was aggressive and determined — hence the 12 free throw attempts — and played an absolutely big-time game.
Luol Deng (24 points, 9-for-17 from the field, 6-for-7 from the line, 11 rebounds), who refused to back down and in fact outplayed Carmelo Anthony (22 points, 7-for-18, 8 rebounds) despite the final four seconds of the game. Deng attacked the basket and was 6-for-7 at the rim. The only thing he didn’t do was hit a three…going 0-for-4 from downtown.
Joakim Noah (17 points, 16 rebounds, a team-high 4 assists), who simply will not stop fighting.
The effort was phenomenal.
I mean, no Rose, no Carlos Boozer, a disappearing act by Taj Gibson (12 minutes, 0-for-3, zero points, zero rebounds) and an ice-cold shooting night by Kyle Korver (2-for-12 from the field and 1-for-6 on threes). A Friday night on the road near the end of the dreaded circus trip.
And despite all that, the Bulls had a three-point lead with half a minute to go. That’s when things fell apart.
It started when Noah got called for a tough foul against ‘Melo with 24 seconds left. Anthony knocked down both freebies to make it 97-96. Tom Thibodeau called timeout and subbed in Kyle Korver for Omer Asik and John Lucas for Ronnie Brewer. After all, with only 24 ticks left on the clock, the Nuggets were going to have to foul.
I have to admit, my blood went a little cold when Lucas was put into the game. After all, the dude was signed earlier that day because of Rose’s injury. Sure, in theory, a guy like that has to be ready for anything. But to me, you never want to bring some kid in ice cold and put him in a position to have to make clutch free throws on the road. That’s practically setting him up to fail.
Sure enough, the Nuggets chased the Bulls around for nearly 12 seconds until the ball ended up in Lucas’ hands. Arron Afflalo fouled him. Lucas went to the line and bricked both shots.
Still, after Denver coach George Karl called a 20-second timeout, Chicago’s defense managed to forced Anthony into a terrible shot that whiffed on everything. Unfortunately, nobody on the Bulls got control of the ball. It went out of bounds and was awarded to the Nuggets with four seconds left.
Now, with so little time, I felt like the obvious play was going to be an inbounds pass to ‘Melo for a jump shot. There just wasn’t any time for anything else. I wanted to see the Bulls deny the pass to Anthony or, failing that, throw a quick double team at him the instant he touched it.
Instead, Carmelo was allowed to catch the ball. One-on-one, he got Deng to back up on a little stutter dribble and then lauched a jumper from 23 feet out…
Said Thibs: “We wanted to play him, take his air space away and make him shoot over the top, but he made a big shot. The big problem was not coming up with the loose ball.”
Added ‘Melo: “Whether he contested it or not, whether he got a hand in my face or not, once I get a good look at the rim, I don’t really think there’s nothing nobody can do.”
Concluded Deng: “He just hit a tough shot. This hurts, but we have to bounce right back.”
And hopefully they will tonight in Sacramento.