Every successful NBA team requires at least one superstar — and typically more. In that sense, the Bulls are in better shape than most.
Jimmy Butler’s selection as an Eastern Conference All-Star starter confirms his superstar status. And Dwyane Wade’s 12 All-Star appearances and three NBA championship rings aren’t simply symbolic. ‘‘Flash’’ isn’t as flashy as he once was, but even at 35, Wade still has game.
What happens, though, when Butler falls ill or when Wade’s cranky knees need a night off?
And what about those games when one or both just aren’t feeling it?
Well, you get what you had Friday in Atlanta, where the Bulls came undone against a Hawks squad that consistently penetrated the lane, made outside shots and jumped on every loose ball for roughly three quarters.
“Lack of energy,” coach Fred Hoiberg said of the Bulls’ latest DOA effort. “You can’t come out and compete against a team like that on their home court after they had been beaten pretty handily the game before and expect to win.”
And yet the Bulls were still in the thick of it after Bobby Portis scored on a pass by Nikola Mirotic to cut the Hawks’ lead to 95-90 with 1:08 left. Portis and Mirotic, plus a handful of other oft-maligned reserves, provided a lift and nearly erased a cringe-worthy 34-point deficit on their own — all while Butler and Wade watched from the sideline.
“Our bench group showed what can happen by competing and playing together and playing the right way,” Hoiberg said. “They got us back in the game and gave us a chance to win at the end.”
Let’s not kid ourselves: The Bulls need Butler. They need Wade. Recent games without Butler, who sat out losses to the Wizards and Knicks, made that painfully obvious. Points are hard to come by when Wade is feeling his age and the offense becomes Jimmy Time, all the time.
But that only underscores the need for contributions from the bench. And the Bulls’ reserves are beginning to respond.
In the last week alone, the Bulls have gotten career- or season-high scoring efforts from Doug McDermott (31), Denzel Valentine (19), Cristiano Felicio (13) and Paul Zipser (10).
Valentine, who had eight points (including two three-pointers), three steals and two blocks against Atlanta to help spark the late push, isn’t buying into the Butler, Wade and the Other Guys narrative.
“They have a lot to do, but we’re all good players,” Valentine said. “So, yeah, they have a big load. They’re our best players. But us, as backups, we feel like we can play and bring intangibles to the game. We just try to come in and play with an edge.”
Still teetering between a playoff spot and a finish in the draft lottery, the Bulls will take any edge they can get.
Follow me on Twitter @JasonLangendorf.