After a grueling 62-plus minutes of basketball, New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams had one more trick tucked up his sleeve, and Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls weren't ready for it.
With the game knotted up at 128 and 4.5 seconds remaining in triple overtime of a nip-and-tuck contest that had already seen more than its fair share of game-changing plays, the Pelicans prepared to inbound in the frontcourt. Williams stationed three players atop the 3-point arc and sent point guard Jrue Holiday, who (after curiously waiting to attack despite trailing) hit the late-fourth-quarter jumper that tied the game at 103 and sent it into the first extra session, into the backcourt. That positioning took advantage of a rulebook wrinkle that allows teams to inbound into the backcourt in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime periods.
Here's what came of it:
At the sound of the whistle, two Pelicans cross to the deep corners while sharpshooting big man Ryan Anderson — who made two huge jumpers in the final 1:08 of triple OT, but also got victimized by Joakim Noah on a tough basket to tie the game at 128 immediately prior to this possession — steps up to set a screen on Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, positioned at half-court to keep an eye on Holiday. The former Philadelphia 76ers point guard bursts left with a head of steam, beating Hinrich to the ball around Anderson's pick. Noah can't take more than a half-step away from Anderson, lest he leave a flame-throwing 3-point shooter who'd already torched Chicago for 36 points on 7 for 11 from deep.
Luol Deng is a step slow moving to his left to fill the gaping hole in the Bulls' defense because he's got to account for Eric Gordon, who hit the 3-pointer to tie it at 109 and send it to double OT, in the strong-side corner. (Also, Deng had spent the last 55 1/2 minutes carrying Chicago's scoring and playmaking load with 37 points and seven assists.) Taj Gibson does eventually leave Al-Farouq Aminu — who, while far from a marksman, had just scored seven points in double OT — in the far corner, but by the time he's stepped into the paint, Holiday's already airborne a foot away from the restricted area.
Holiday absorbed the contact, finished the layup, got the and-one and drained the free throw. Thanks to a fantastic bit of know-your-rules play design that takes advantage of the shooting on hand, the Bulls were left with a three-point deficit and 2.6 seconds to overcome it. They couldn't. They almost did — Mike Dunleavy had a pretty good look at a 3 in the final second — but they couldn't, and the Pelicans held on for a 131-128 triple-overtime win in their first game without injured star forward Anthony Davis.
After the game, the Bulls sounded a bit mystified by what transpired in the closing seconds, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
"It was a tough play," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We didn't cover it as well as we should've."
Replays showed Kirk Hinrich getting hung up on a screen and Noah failing to help. Asked what specifically broke down, Thibodeau remained terse.
"Containing the ball," he said.
Gibson said he was "shocked" Holiday was so open.
"They drew up a great play," Noah said. "They knew we were going to switch once the ball got in bounds. [Holiday] was at half-court so we didn't think he was part of the play."
Not only was he part of it; he was the focal point. That bit of misdirection gave the Pelicans the edge and, as it turned out, the game.
All five Pelicans starters scored in double figures, led by Anderson's 36 on 12 for 20 shooting to go with six rebounds in a game-high 56 1/2 minutes. Holiday needed 22 shots to score his 19 points, but added 12 assists against just two turnovers and eight rebounds in 49 minutes. Gordon chipped in 23 points and seven assists, and Jason Smith added a double-double (12 points, 14 rebounds in 47 minutes) after getting the start for the injured Davis to help the Pelicans get back above .500 at 9-8.
"I'm not sure that I have ever played in one like this and I know I haven't coached one like this," Williams said after the game, according to John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "We just put our heart and soul into a game like this and it takes a lot out of you. I'm proud of how we came back and won this one, particularly without [Davis] and Greg [Stiemsma]. This win is really about the heart and character of the guys in that locker room."
Deng's 37 led all scorers, but his seven turnovers — including five in the fourth quarter and OT sessions — hurt the shorthanded Bulls, who fell to 1-4 since losing star point guard Derrick Rose for the season to a knee injury. Gibson was sensational off the Chicago bench, chipping in 26 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks on a night where Carlos Boozer (four points on 2 for 6 shooting, six rebounds, shaky pick-and-roll defense, no playing time after the third quarter) didn't offer a ton.
Dunleavy broke loose for 23 points on 6 for 10 shooting from beyond the arc, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. Noah (19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) and Hinrich (13 points, albeit on 4 for 15 shooting and a woeful 0 for 8 mark from long distance, 11 assists, six rebounds) each contributed double-doubles in their extra duty, but it wasn't enough to keep Chicago from dropping its sixth game in its last seven tries.
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