The bell tolls for these Bulls.
Not just from an injury standpoint, which would certainly make sense considering Taj Gibson had to miss this game with fractured ribs in addition to Derrick Rose with a persisting elbow issue, but also in the context of their entire season. The Bulls were at a point where they had no room for mistakes during the final two weeks of the season if they were serious about making the playoffs. It would seem that this dream is now dead, as the projected 7th seed and division rival Pistons came into Chicago tonight and did just enough to beat a Bulls team that struggled to score after the first quarter.
The Bulls opened the contest with a starting five of Moore, Butler, Dunleavy, Portis, and Gasol; which is the 22nd different lineup the Bulls have begun a game with this season. While common sense would normally declare this cause for concern, the Bulls actually played very crisply on both ends to open the game. Players moved off the ball well on offense and made efforts to contest the myriad jumpshots the Pistons initially took on the other end.
Gasol in particular was great, scoring seven points in the first six minutes of the game, including a three. The team would go on to eclipse the 25-point mark with a little over three minutes left, but sputtered for the remainder of the quarter. Defensively, the Bulls did a good job of keeping Andre Drummond from making much noise, but struggled to defend Tobias Harris' hot shooting. Despite this, the Bulls ended the first quarter up 27-26.
The Pistons finally registered their first bench points of the game about two and a half minutes into the second quarter during a sequence of back to back threes. Though this forced the Bulls to take a timeout and Fred Hoiberg to go to the whiteboard, the ATO play resulted in a nice dunk from Cristiano Felicio.
However, the Bulls struggled pretty much everywhere else for the opening six minutes of the quarter, and they surrendered the lead to the Pistons and managed only eight points of their own. Though the Bulls managed to equalize and stay even down to the final minute, a late Jimmy Butler turnover eventually resulted in points that put the Pistons ahead 46-45 to end the first half. Despite the deficit, Butler managed to close out the half with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds, and nearly made it a trip-dub with 8 assists as well.
The third quarter started out pedestrian and fairly even between both teams, but Butler quickly added four rebounds to his total and dished two assists to clinch his triple-double early on. Other than Jimmy continuing to pile on stats, however, not much happened for either team. The Pistons registered only 12 points through the first nine minutes of the third quarter, and the Bulls only registered a single point more than that themselves. It only got worse from there for the Bulls, as the Pistons managed to put together a 12-7 run to end the third quarter thanks to a seven point spurt from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The third quarter ended with Chicago down to Detroit by a score of 70-65.
The fourth quarter opened with Nikola Mirotic entering the game and immediately spraying in a three. Then, Aaron Brooks got fouled on a three point attempt of his own, and suddenly the game was tied again after only a minute and a half of play. A minute later, Drummond gifted the entire United Center crowd free Chik-Fil-A after bricking two free throw attempts amid what was one of the loudest moments of the season from the Bulls' faithful. However, despite the uptick in crowd noise, the Bulls still found themselves down 80-75 with six minutes remaining in the game.
Hoiberg initiated Hack-a-Drummond shortly afterwards and the big man quickly bricked two free throws, leading to a Bulls made jumper on the other end. At this point, Drummond was 1-10 from the free throw line for the game, and Stan Van Gundy had no choice but to take him out. Even without him, the Pistons managed to stay just ahead of the Bulls as they entered the final minute up 86-83.
Then a series of unfortunate events transpired for the Bulls. Butler forced up a bad miss from three because he thought he was fouled, Dunleavy blindly threw the miss over his head to save it from going out of bounds and Reggie Jackson easily stole the ball and outran a lazy Bulls' defense to the other goal. Though Jackson missed his layup attempt, Tobias Harris easily rebounded the shot and put the ball back in for two points. Another blown offensive possession and two Marcus Morris free throws later, the Bulls found themselves down seven points with a mere 43 seconds remaining.
Suddenly, hope shined on the Bulls when Jimmy Butler cashed a three out of a timeout, then Dunleavy forced Jackson to commit an offensive foul, and Butler quickly got fouled and made both free throws. Unfortunately, Butler was called for a questionable blocking call after getting kneed in the chest by Jackson and needing assistance from the trainers.
After an especially lengthy video review, Jackson made both free throws. Butler bricked a three on the next possession and that pretty much put the nail in the coffin for the Bulls in this game, as the Pistons would go on to ultimately hand the Bulls a 94-90 loss.
Although Jimmy Butler absolutely stuffed the stat sheet tonight (28 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks) along with Pau Gasol (16 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks), none of the other Bulls seemed to be able to get anything going with the exception of Aaron Brooks.
As for the Pistons, all five of their starters managed to get into double figures, while Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson each had 20+ point performances. Though they shot only 42% from the field, the Pistons hit 10 three point shots on 50% of their attempts while the Bulls shot a mere 38% as a team from the field and only 36% from beyond the arc. Butler's valiant performance came at the cost of a continued personal struggle from three this season, as he hit only one of his seven attempts from long range.
With this loss, the Bulls' playoff odds according to FiveThirtyEight dropped from 26% all the way down to 5%. The Pistons conversely upped their own odds to 89%, and the 8th-seeded Pacers still have a 92% chance to make the postseason despite recent home losses to the Bulls and Magic.
As I detailed a few weeks ago, the schedule the Pacers have left to play is an extremely easy one, and the Pistons are more than capable of winning enough of their remaining games to stay ahead of the Bulls. Optimists can still hang on to the sliver of hope that remains, but this loss was perhaps the most significant blow the team could take to its playoff hopes down the stretch, and it would appear as if Chicago is going to miss the NBA postseason for the first time in eight years.