A streaking Bobby Portis ran down the baseline after going full bore to close out on Joe Johnson, finding gold when Denzel Valentine launched a 45-foot fly pattern pass for a dunk.
That’s what’s called “Player Development”, as was Valentine’s triple that luckily rolled out to him in the left corner when Utah’s Rudy Gobert slapped Joffrey Lauvergne’s layup to Kingdom Come.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Valentine said. “You gotta stay patient, aggressive and confident.”
Both were critical plays in the fourth quarter against a quality opponent fighting for playoff position in the Bulls’ 95-86 over the Jazz Saturday night at the United Center.
Like Friday night, the Bulls played a spirited fourth quarter, erasing early mistakes and a double-digit deficit with vigor, timely shooting and an energy that’s rarely been seen this year.
One could say it was their best defensive performance of the season, on the heels of Wizards point guard John Wall carving up the Bulls’ defense for 20 assists. Holding the Jazz under 40 percent was an unsung highlight, and Jimmy Butler choked off the Jazz’ last hope by snatching the ball from a streaking Gordon Hayward and saving it from going out of bounds with less than a minute left and the Bulls leading by six.
“Go get the ball back,” Butler said. “It started with Mike (Carter-Williams) from making a play on the ball and making him alter his layup. I got it in just enough time to grab it. Just great hustle on everybody’s part.”
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was impressed by the overall effort on the defensive end, especially after the way they’ve played in the last stretch, having lost seven of their last eight.
“I thought we really locked in all night,” Hoiberg said. “We didn’t get off to a great start, down eight to ten off the bat. We did a good job in the second half, beginning of the third quarter.”
But perhaps the biggest highlight was the reliance on the young players who rose to the challenge under the circumstances, as the book is still out on Portis and Valentine to be sure.
For once, though, they produced in a winning situation, as Valentine scored 11 with 12 rebounds and four assists while Portis scored a career-high 22 points with five rebounds, doing his best to contain Joe Johnson on the perimeter while helping out on the mammoth Gobert (13 points, 13 rebounds) on the interior.
“Most of the time, I don’t play in the fourth quarter,” Portis said. “it was fun to see how fired up our guys were, even the bench was happy. The crowd, too. They were really involved tonight.”
If Portis followed the usual pattern of being pulled from the starting lineup as he was for Nikola Mirotic, he wouldn’t have seen the floor, as was the case with the revolving door of point guards.
But when he entered, he was aggressive, hitting jumpers and floaters, playing free and easy. After looking unsure of himself the last several games, he played definitively and it showed as he took advantage of every opportunity he had to score.
When he entered, the Bulls were down 18-10 with 3:27 left in the first after trailing by 12, and the energy in the building changed immediately.
“I liked starting so I played with a chip on my shoulder,” Portis said. “The last couple games I was hesitant to shoot. I gotta get that out my system. Probably just thinking too much and not playing the way the game is supposed to be played.”
Hitting his first six shots, he scored 13 in the first half, and three straight buckets to start the fourth gave the Bulls a slim lead, critical while Butler was on the bench.
“The biggest thing was putting two halves together, a complete game,” Portis said. “I feel like I did. I took good shots, I didn’t force anything on the offensive end. I let the game come to me. We got a big, well-needed win tonight.”
Butler finished with 23 points and seven assists in 37 minutes, but it wasn’t all isolation ball as the Bulls got him shots in different places, punctuated by several cuts to the basket, including a late one that resulted in a three-point play on his first possession midway through the fourth.
Sometimes the load appears to be too much for Butler, carrying an offensive load while keeping the other team’s best perimeter player in check on the other end.
But he put Hayward on punishment and holding him to five of 16 shooting and 14 points.
Whether it was a by-product of one leading the other or overall concentration on defense, it was likely their best performance of the season on that end, forcing 15 turnovers and keeping the Jazz to just 25 percent from three.
The only fly in the ointment was getting outrebounded 49-39, an aspect that kept the Jazz ahead until the third when the Bulls took their first lead at 49-48, a comeback after trailing by 12 early and looking pretty lifeless.
But the life came from the youth, as they showed their worth for a night, in a season where they don’t have many more opportunities to impress for the future.