Two late calls, one missed free throw help Bulls beat Spurs
This was probably an emotional night for the referees, as well as the players.
After paying tribute to lost NBA legend Kobe Bryant, the Bulls went down to the wire with the San Antonio Spurs on Monday at the United Center. The end of the game felt like the equivalent of penalty kicks in soccer.
With the score tied, Zach LaVine drove through three Spurs, missed a runner in the lane, but got a late whistle and knocked down both free throws with 2.1 seconds left. It was difficult to pick out a foul on the replay.
The same thing happened on the other end, though. As DeMar DeRozan missed an 18-footer at the buzzer. Kris Dunn was called for a foul, even though it appeared he merely brushed against DeRozan's leg as he contested the shot.
DeRozan made the first free throw, missed the second and the Bulls had an emotional 110-109 victory, their second in a row. DeRozan finished with 36 points and went 14 of 17 at the foul line.
"We've lost one of the greatest competitors ever, in any sport," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said of Bryant. "To honor him, I thought what we needed to do was go out and compete and play as hard as we could. I thought our guys did that.
"I think the whole league's hurting. Both teams came out and played hard and it was a good game, an entertaining game, lot of good plays."
The Bulls did the standard tribute routine before the game -- video, followed by 24 seconds of silence. One nice touch was the video featured footage of Bryant's daughter Gianna, who also died Sunday.
The teams followed popular league protocol, opening the game by trading 8-second and 24-second violations on the first two possessions. Bryant wore both Nos. 8 and 24 with the Lakers.
Outside the arena, the electronic message boards on the sides of the United Center displayed pictures of Bryant, along with the purple and gold of the Lakers. The Michael Jordan statue was bathed in purple light.
"Talking to guys who do know Kobe -- I never got the chance to meet him -- they say off the court, he was even better," Dunn said. "He was a great teacher and he was always a friend.
"When Kobe goes on the court, he leaves it all on the floor. Jim talked about it, what Kobe would want us to do is just go out there and play our hearts out. That's what we tried to do. We were just happy we could get the win."
LaVine was bottled up most of the night, but came alive in the fourth quarter to score 14 of his team-high 23 points. Denzel Valentine also came up big, matching his season-high with 16 points. The Bulls put seven players in double figures.
For three quarters, the Bulls couldn't get much of anything past the rim protection of San Antonio center Jacob Poeltl, who filled in for the injured LaMarcus Aldridge (thumb). The Bulls finally built some momentum midway through the fourth quarter when LaVine was able to drop a pair of laying over Poeltl to put the Bulls ahead.
A few minutes later, Boylen tried a bold strategy of Hack-a-Poeltl. Luke Kornet and Thaddeus Young both fouled the Spurs' big man intentionally, and he went 1-for-4 at the foul line. When Young drained a corner 3-pointer, the Bulls led 108-104 with 2:29 left.
Boylen said after the game he decided to foul Poeltl mostly to try to cool off DeRozan. But the Bulls blew several chances to build the lead. They had 3 turnovers and 2 missed shots down the stretch, and DeRozan hit two midrange jumpers to tie the score with 8.6 seconds left.
"It was tough, definitely, especially when guys get in a rhythm," Dunn said of guarding DeRozan. "Free throws allow great players to get in a rhythm. I just tried to stick with him the whole game. The foul call at the end, I was devastated. I didn't want to put us in that situation."
Well, maybe Dunn made DeRozan work hard enough that he was too tired to make the final free throw.
"I don't know about that," Dunn said. "I could definitely say I made him work today. He did an unbelievable job. I did everything I could."