It’s too bad they don’t have a “Moral Victory” column in the NBA standings.
The shorthanded-as-always Bulls — who were once again without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton and Taj Gibson — were faced with a daunting task:
Slow down the Denver Nuggets, the league’s second hottest team, winners of 11 straight games.
The Bulls ended up having one of their best offensive outputs in a while: 49 percent shooting, 12 offensive rebounds, 19 second-chance points, 50 points in the paint, and a scoring rate of 115.5 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference).
Unfortunately, that whole “slow down the Denver Nuggets” thing never quite happened.
Offensively speaking, Denver did everything a little bit better: 20 offensive rebounds, 20 second-chance points, 30 fast break points, 68 points in the paint, and a scoring rate of 116.5 points per 100 possessions.
That’s right, folks. It was “Defense Optional Night” in the United Center.
Chicago’s D shouldn’t have been caught this off guard. After all, the Nuggets are a run-and-gun team that entered the game ranked first in fast break points, points in the paint and second-chance points. They love to crash the boards and attack the rim. Which is what they did. Over and over again.
According to Hoopdata, the Nuggets attempted an astounding 54 shots at the rim. They connected on 34 of them…which is nearly as many as the Bulls attempted. Denver’s offensive rebounding rate was an equally amazing 40 percent.
Normally, I would assume Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was irate over his team’s defensive effort. But in this case, Thibs was irate about something else entirely.
The Bulls kept finding themselves down by double-digits, but they fought their way back thanks to spectacular performances by Joakim Noah (14 points, 7-for-10, 12 rebounds, 7 blocked shots, 6 assists) and Nate Robinson (34 points, 7 assists, 6 three-pointers, including the three that forced overtime).
In the NBA, when a home team erases a huge deficit and forces OT, there’s a feeling of destiny. It just feels like they should win. And it sure felt that way after Robinson nailed a 22-footer to put the Bulls up 115-114 with just over a minute left in the extra session.
Then several things went wrong.
After Robinson’s shot, Denver came back and got yet another layup attempt from Ty Lawson. That attempt missed, but Kosta Koufos tipped the ball in to put the Nuggets up 116-115 with 46.4 seconds left.
One problem: The ball was still on the rim when Koufos touched it. Which is goaltending. But because the officials missed the call, they couldn’t review the play.
As ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell put it: “The officials let the play go and did not review it, despite a new NBA rule addendum that allows officials to review a play in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and any play in overtime. The key is that a violation must be called on the floor in order for officials to be able to review it on courtside monitors.”
This would come back to haunt the Bulls.
But before that, Chicago managed to reclaim the lead thanks to a layup by Noah and a free throw by Robinson. The Bulls were now ahead 118-116 with 16 seconds left. They were 16 seconds of defense away from an improbable win.
Of course, they didn’t get it.
Andre Miller drove deep into the paint only to find himself sandwiched between Noah and Jimmy Butler. Some crazy spinning and pivoting ensued — during which it sure look liked he traveled — before Miller shoveled the ball to a wide open Andre Iguodala. Noah managed to challenge the shot, but Iggy nailed a triple and now the Bulls were down by a point with seven seconds to go.
After a timeout, the Bulls inbounded the ball to Marco Belinelli, who drove to the baseline and lofted a jumper that a leaping Noah touched on its way down.
Unlike the Koufos play, the officials called this one, and they were therefore able to review it. Which meant the shot wouldn’t count. And it didn’t.
As referee Ken Mauer explained: “If we deem the ball in its descent has a chance to score, and therefore it’s in the cylinder, it’s either offensive basket interference or it’s goaltending, that’s it.”
For their part, the Bulls players and coaching staff believed the official initially allowed the basket and only changed their mind after the Nuggets called timeout and demanded a review.
Said Noah: “They called it good, they called basket.”
Thibodeau absolutely erupted. I’ve never seen the guy that angry.
After the game, Thibs said: “I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it one bit. Koufos’ play, I asked why it wasn’t reviewed. … Clearly it was on the rim, and they told me that because they didn’t make the call, they couldn’t review it. If that is the rule, then that is the rule. I thought we had the video stuff to make sure we got it right. Then down on the other end, they are tough calls on bang-bang plays, but I don’t understand why one is reviewable and the other one isn’t. After watching the replay, and I watched it when it occurred, they never made the call on that either.
“It’s a tough play. From my angle, it looked like it was a good play, it looked like the ball was short. Koufos’ [play], I know, was on the rim, and to me I guess we have to call the league and get an interpretation. Maybe I don’t understand the rule correctly.”
The rest of the Bulls were as upset as their coach.
Said Carlos Boozer: “We felt like we got it stolen from us.”
Added Noah: “Very disappointing. I feel like you play this game so hard and maybe I just don’t understand the rules or something, but I just don’t understand how you can review my tip-in but two plays before that you can’t review the other one. There’s got to be consistency in when you can review [a play]. It’s just frustrating how things like that can happen. I know that the refs are doing the best that they can in those situations, but it cost us the game today, so it’s disappointing.”
I agree that this was a rough way to end a game. But in the final analysis, it was one play. What about all those layups the Nuggets had? Or their 12 dunks? The 20 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points? The 30 fast break points?
The reality is, has the Bulls done a better job protecting the rim, taking care of their defensive glass or getting back in transition, nobody would be talking about a missed call.
It’s a shame that such a great effort wasn’t rewarded. But the Bulls are a team that has to do all the little things to win. Last night, they didn’t do all the little things. And it cost them.