CHICAGO – The Chicago Bulls were all about clinching playoff spots Saturday night.
For Miami. For Charlotte. Just not for themselves with their 94-90 loss at home to the Detroit Pistons.
Instead of seizing the two-fer opportunity against the Pistons (who were playing the tail end of a back-to-back) and at least keeping pace with the Pacers (who rallied to win in Philadelphia), the Bulls dug their hole at the bottom of the Eastern Conference bracket a little deeper. At 38-38, they remain in ninth place, two games behind Indiana and 2.5 behind Detroit.
Chicago has six games left and holds the tiebreaker against the Pacers but lost it, along with the game, against the Pistons. In the four-game series against Chicago, including five overtime periods, Detroit outscored the Bulls 440-439 in 217 minutes but wound up 3-1.
Stan Van Gundy had billed this one, coming in, as the biggest game of the season for his club. So when they closed it out, the Pistons coach didn’t back away from its significance.
“Up to this point,” he said, qualifying it just a bit. “Hopefully there are even bigger ones to come. But for four of our starters – and they all agreed – that’s the most meaningful win of their NBA careers. All of our starters except Reggie [Jackson]. But we’ve got bigger things to do. So we’re not there yet.”
Detroit closed out the playoff-style game by holding Chicago to 7-of-23 shooting in the fourth quarter, while its 11-of-16 work from the foul line was better than their 9-for-18 through three quarters. Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris and Jackson were a perfect 8-for-8 in the final 2:17, with Van Gundy sitting center Andre Drummond for the final 5:22 after he bricked nine of his 10 free throws.
“He was 1-for-10 – he made the decision easy tonight,” Van Gundy said. “In a close game like that, we can’t be playing or hoping for one point at most when they’re playing for two or three. You can’t do that. You’re putting too much pressure on your defense.”
Chicago has been putting too much pressure on its entire game after flopping in that gauntlet last week against the Knicks, the Knicks again and the Magic. Taking even two of those would have them in seventh right now, a game up with the tiebreaker over ninth-place Indiana. Now?
“We are well aware of our situation,” veteran Pau Gasol said. “The math is probably against us at this point.”
With Derrick Rose (left elbow) and Taj Gibson (rib contusion) out, and with the four starters besides Jimmy Butler shooting zero free throws in a combined 112 minutes, the offensive load fell to Butler. He posted the first triple-double of his career – 28 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists – but he shot 10-of-25, dominated Chicago’s stagnant offense down the stretch and was exhausted before the final horn.
“He put up good numbers. He shot a lot of shots, too,” said Morris, who stayed physical with the Bulls’ scorer until Van Gundy switched Kentavious Caldwell-Pope onto Butler late. “Hopefully that’s what happens. He’s a good player, an All-Star. I love Jimmy, one of my closest guys in the NBA. Great player. He’s just one of those guys, we go back and forth.”
There’s no back or forth for the Bulls now, just falling down and looking up at the Pistons, the Pacers and six other East rivals in the standings.