By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — It only took a quick glance at the fourth-quarter box score to know the importance of Monday’s contest against the Pacers in the minds of the Bulls.
In a departure from habit, guard Dwyane Wade played the entire final frame, on the second night of a back-to-back no less. It bucked his usual trend of resting for several minutes in the middle of quarters and, while not necessarily the pregame plan, was a move both Wade and coach Fred Hoiberg came to realize was needed on this night.
The Bulls had entered as losers in six of their past seven games. Questions about their lack of athleticism, their abysmal 3-point shooting and the continued poor play from their bench were front and center. So as Hoiberg kept looking at Wade in the fourth quarter to see if he needed a blow, the latter kept responding with his “nuh-uh” look.
“He looked at me, and I was like…” Wade said, shaking his head for effect.
None of the Bulls’ bigger-picture worries were solved Monday, but a 90-85 win against the Pacers (15-17) at the United Center did at least serve as a temporary respite. Niko Mirotic continued to display signs of consistency with 20 points, and Wade reminded everyone why the Bulls (15-16) brought him to Chicago last July, scoring a game-high 21 points.
In the pivotal fourth quarter, Wade scored 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting and came up with several big plays.
“All the plays he made late, on the defensive end, on the offensive end, the communication, that’s why he’s here,” said teammate Jimmy Butler, who had 16 points on 3-of-12 shooting while also playing the primary role in limiting Pacers star Paul George to 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
Wade also authored his signature moment as a Bull. As Indiana trailed 88-85 in the final seconds and searched for a tying look at a 3-pointer, Wade played “free safety” and deflected a cross-court pass after his teammates did a good job closing out on Aaron Brooks. Wade ran the ball down for the steal and then dunked with 1.2 seconds to provide the game its final margin.
“We needed it,” Wade said. “We needed a win, and it was a good way to get it coming off a back-to-back, fighting it out.”
Wade playing the entire fourth quarter was one of Hoiberg’s two notable adjustments. He also benched starting point guard Rajon Rondo for the entire final 12 minutes, instead going with second-year pro Jerian Grant (10 points) in a decision he attributed to “the flow of the game.” While it still wasn’t a pretty win, the changes helped the Bulls — who entered with the second-worst fourth-quarter scoring margin in the league — score 27 points in the final frame and hold off the Pacers.
The other crucial development was the play of Mirotic, whose 20 points put him in double figures for the fifth straight game after he was benched twice for poor play. Mirotic hit a crucial stepback 2-pointer from the corner with the shot clock running down to give the Bulls a three-point cushion with 21 seconds left.
“We need him to win,” Wade said. “Simple as that. We need him to play big, and he knows we believe and trust in him. Tonight he made big shots.”
Mirotic’s performance also came one day after executive vice president John Paxson indicated on 670 The Score that Mirotic needed to say “enough was enough” and stop getting down on himself. On this night, Mirotic did just that.
“I’m trying to be positive,” Mirotic said. “It was very hard for me to accept (the benching). I will always be professional. I respect everyone here, the coaches, the players, so I said to myself, ‘Niko, do what you got to do.’
“It’s been hard, but the only thing you can do is keep working.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.