By Mike McGraw
This wasn’t an ideal matchup one night after the completion of a three-day road trip that featured two overtime wins, especially with the Bulls missing their two best players.
Memphis is a big, powerful team that knows how to keep the score low against the Bulls. When these teams played in Tennessee on Dec. 17, the Bulls scored 71 points, their lowest total since January 2008.
With Luol Deng sidelined by a right-hamstring strain Saturday, the Bulls fell behind by 17 points in the third quarter. Deng’s replacement, Jimmy Butler, powered a fourth-quarter comeback, and the Bulls had chances to win.
Ultimately, though, inside strength made the difference. The Bulls played a third straight overtime game during the regular season for the first time in franchise history but lost 85-82 at the United Center.
Memphis grabbed 3 offensive rebounds in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, when the Bulls had their best chance to win. Then Zach Randolph (19 rebounds) and Marc Gasol (19 points) opened overtime with a putback basket each and the Bulls never fully recovered.
Coach Tom Thibodeau’s message after the contest was about coping when push comes to shove.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game going in,” he said. “That’s the way they play, credit to them. You have to stay disciplined. You can’t allow frustration to take you away from what you’re trying to get done out there.
“It’s one of those things, you’ve just got to keep battling and battling. In the end, whatever’s necessary, that’s what you have to do to win. You’ve got to get in the fight. It’s physical and you can’t get thrown around. When you’re getting smacked, you’ve got to still be able to get your job done.”
The Bulls (23-16) ended up with a 50-48 rebounding edge, but Memphis won second-chance points 20-14.
“Offensive rebounding ultimately got us the win,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “They couldn’t get the defensive board, and that allowed us to go up 6 in the overtime.”
Gasol drained a jumper from the top of the key to make it 82-76 two minutes into the extra session. The Bulls made a run with Marco Belinelli’s driving lay-in and a fastbreak bucket by Butler.
When Randolph missed 2 free throws with 39.5 seconds left, the Bulls had a chance trailing by 3 but never got a good look at a 3-pointer.
Nate Robinson drove for a lay-in to make it 83-82 with 6.6 seconds left, but Memphis (26-13) got that one right back when Jerryd Bayless got behind the defense with a long pass.
Carlos Boozer tossed up a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer that could have tied the score, but it fell short.
“It was just bodies banging,” Taj Gibson said. “The last time we played that team, it was real physical. It was a dogfight. It was a real grind-out game. You look at from a rebound standpoint, guys going in there slinging bodies. The refs let us play. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it done.”
Joakim Noah came out of the game midway through the third quarter and never went back in. It’s not unusual for Thibodeau to stick with a hot lineup. But even when Gibson fouled out in the final minute of overtime, Thibodeau went with veteran Nazr Mohammed.
After the game, Thibodeau would say only that it was a coach’s decision.
Noah finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds. Butler led the Bulls with 18 points, playing nearly 48 minutes. Boozer had another double-double with 17 points and 14 boards.
The Bulls led 75-72 with 1:33 left in the fourth quarter after Robinson banked in a 3-pointer. Memphis got 2 free throws and a post hook from Gasol to go up by 1 with 34.4 seconds left.
Belinelli was fouled on a drive to the hoop but split the free throws with 31.4 seconds left, leaving the score tied.
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