HOUSTON -- There was no hesitation in Dwyane Wade's voice.
"What do the Bulls miss most without Jimmy Butler on the floor?"
"Everything," Wade said.
In a season full of up-and-down play and hard-to-believe wins and losses, Friday night's game will stand out as being more outlandish than most. The Bulls deserve credit for battling a talented Rockets team all night without Butler, who was a late scratch because of a right heel injury. They battled back from a 17-point, first-half deficit and frustrated Rockets star James Harden all night. But, as usual for this group of players, they weren't able to sustain that solid play down the stretch, and couldn't close down an eight-point lead with three minutes left.
If there were still any doubts about just how talented Butler is and just how much the Bulls rely on him in all facets of the game, Friday's game served as a reminder that Chicago can't go for any long stretch without him. That was most apparent in the waning moments of regulation and in overtime, when the Bulls had no answer offensively, with Wade left to force up some contested shots.
"Everything is centered around Jimmy," Wade said. "Guarding the other team's best player. We go to him [with] a lot of plays on the offensive end. A lot changes, of course. But that's not the reason we lost tonight. We had a chance to win, being up six when I got ripped by [Trevor] Ariza. Still, we got to find a way to win that. And then again towards the end. But we had our chances. Overtime, we had a lead. We just didn't pull it out. But it was [not because] of who wasn't on the court. We had our chances to win tonight."
Wade finished the game with 19 points, but was just 8-for-22 shooting overall and 2-for-7 in overtime. He made some key shots in the fourth quarter but appeared to run out of gas in the final minutes. What compounds the problem for the Bulls is that they don't have anyone else they can consistently rely upon when Butler, or, in this case, Wade can't get it going.
"It is tough," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of playing without Butler. "He's a guy that's made a lot of big plays for us. He's won a lot of games for us this year just by putting the ball in his hands and letting him go out and make plays. But at the same time, I think you ask anybody in that locker room, they're every bit as comfortable with Dwyane out there with the ball in his hands and going out there. That's what he done his whole career at this level. It's why he's a Hall of Fame player. Unfortunately, we couldn't get it done, but we got the ball in the right guy's hands and unfortunately we just couldn't get it."
Wade admitted making several "mistakes" down the stretch, and it didn't help that the Bulls felt they were slighted when it appeared Harden climbed on Michael Carter-Williams' back only to see Carter-Williams called for his sixth and final foul of the night.
"[Harden] gets so many calls his way, it's ridiculous sometimes," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "I guess we got to call 'referee hotline.' There were some rough calls late, we had some guys who learned a lot tonight."
Aside from Butler's importance down the stretch, something Hoiberg knew full well, the young coach learned that he should probably give Carter-Williams another chance in the rotation in the near future after the Syracuse alum took advantage of Butler's absence by going off for 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Clearly, Carter-Williams was trying to prove a point to Hoiberg after being benched for the past week.
"Honestly, I think Fred preaches when you get your chance, when your name is called, be ready to play," Carter-Williams said. "I've been working my ass off trying to be ready to play so whatever coach does; if I go back to the bench, that's what I got to do. Of course I want to play. Jimmy's going to be back hopefully next game, so however and whenever I can help the team, that's what I got to do."
The Bulls were surprisingly upbeat after Friday's loss -- probably because few observers figured things would be that close in the first place. In the short term, they have to hope Butler's injury isn't that serious, but in the long term, the Bulls' front office has to use Friday as another reminder to improve the roster for the future. Wade still has flashes of brilliance, but he is 35 years old and can no longer carry a team by himself down the stretch. Butler is the straw that stirs the drink for the Bulls and everybody in the locker room knows it. Gibson couldn't help but joke when asked about the differences of playing without Butler.
"The ball moves," Gibson said with a laugh. "Nah, it's tough when you got your closer missing. At times during the game I was like, 'Yeah, it would have been great to have Jimmy out here.' But we got some great guys, man. We got some talented guys, setting up plays. We still got D-Wade, man. He was taking the big shots late. We had the lead. But we turned around and you got the refs calling every kind of ticky-tack foul for James Harden, it's really tough."