MEMPHIS—This type of game, most easily described as a slugfest, used to be what defined the Bulls (12-17), so Monday night’s 95-91 win over the Grizzlies (13-17) at the FedEx Forum had an even more satisfying feel to it, given both the team’s recent struggles and the fortitude it takes to beat an equally hard-nosed opponent.
As could be expected in a matchup of two rugged, defensive-oriented squads, scoring didn’t come easily for either team in the early going, Carlos Boozer (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Jimmy Butler (26 points), two players who have endured their share of recent struggles, whether related to health or performance, were offensive catalysts for the Bulls in the opening period.
But behind underrated floor general Mike Conley Jr. (24 points, nine assists, six steals, six rebounds), the Grizzlies surged and obtained some breathing room, creating a 22-17 deficit for the Bulls through a quarter of play.
The Bulls got a boost from their second unit. The playmaking and on-the-ball defense of reserve floor general D.J. Augustin (10 points, nine assists, four steals), outside shooting of rookie swingman Tony Snell and interior presence of big man Taj Gibson (nine points, four blocked shots) allowed them to keep things close, despite the contributions of the Memphis inside duo of All-Star power forward Zach Randolph (10 points, 10 rebounds) and center Kosta Koufos (12 points), who has capably filled in for the sidelined Marc Gasol.
Midway through the second quarter, the Bulls took their first lead of the contest on a Gibson dunk off an Augustin feed in transition and as All-Star center Joakim Noah (eight points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) got more involved, the positive momentum continued to build. But turnovers deviled both teams throughout the first half, allowing the Grizzlies to stay within close contact and ultimately regain the lead on a Koufos jumper with 2.2 seconds left, but Mike Dunleavy Jr. somehow baited fellow veteran Tayshaun Prince into a shooting foul from near halfcourt with 0.2 seconds remaining to send the Bulls into the intermission with a 46-44 advantage.
After the break, the Bulls extended their edge, as Boozer and Butler continued to be focal points, while Dunleavy’s intangibles and solid team defense were also important factors. Butler, in particular, had an impressive frame, as things clicked for him offensively—one sequence saw him score eight consecutive points, back-to-back three-pointers, followed by an alley-oop on a fast break—and he exploded for 14 third-quarter points en route to the Bulls mounting a comfortable double-digit lead, as much as an 18-point margin.
The Grizzlies, however, rallied late in the period, closing it on a 16-5 run, to trim the Bulls’ lead to 71-64 heading into the final stanza.
The fourth quarter started in similar fashion, as Memphis gradually inched closer, cutting the Bulls’ lead to a sole point, 72-71, on a pair of free throws by familiar face James Johnson (13 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks) with just over nine minutes to play in the contest. In a matchup of current and former Bulls swingmen, Butler and Johnson—who would eventually foul out—each made an impact for their respective teams in the close-knit affair, which got a little less tight for the Bulls after a huge triple by Augustin to beat the shot clock with half of the period left.
But matters weren’t helped when Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, coaching after returning from attending his late father’s funeral in Connecticut earlier in the day, was assessed a technical foul by lead official Tony Brother less than a minute later. The Bulls managed to hold things together, though and took an 88-78 lead on a corner trey by Kirk Hinrich with 3:35 on the clock.
With under a minute to go, a no-call on a Conley drive—the point guard appeared to be mauled by Hinrich—went in the Bulls’ favor and a pair of subsequent Noah free throws seemed to seal the deal. But a Conley three-point play on the following possession with 26.6 seconds remaining made it a 92-87 game, meaning the Bulls weren’t completely out of the woods.
A series of clutch free throws late eventually put away the victory, sending the Bulls home for a New Year’s Eve matchup Toronto at the United Center with some positive momentum.