CHARLOTTE -- With their season on the brink of complete disaster and morale low, Dwyane Wade felt like he had to say something to his struggling Chicago Bulls prior to Monday night's game against the Charlotte Hornets. The Bulls came into the game having lost five straight and trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by a game and a half for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Wade, who ripped his younger teammates earlier in the year and questioned how badly they wanted to win, brought a more unified message to the table before what became the Bulls' most important win to date, a 115-109 victory over the Hornets.
"Just to compete, man," Wade told ESPN.com. "Sometimes you go out there and you just play basketball. And you don't necessarily get into the fight. [Our] guys, we all like each other, when we practice against each other we're competing. We compete our ass off. And we talk s--- while we're doing it. And sometimes you got to do that to the other team. You got to get out there and compete. Somebody comes to the hole, foul him a little harder. Not nothing malicious, but you got to compete. We're fighting for a playoff spot. That kind of was the message."
The seeds for Wade's speech were planted on Sunday night after the Bulls' embarrassing defeat to the Boston Celtics, in which the Bulls started the game 1-for-17 from the field. Rajon Rondo, who started for the first time since Dec. 30, revealed after the win that some of the Bulls played the card game "Guts," on Sunday night to help clear their collective head.
"I think cards bring us together," Rondo said. "We played a little bit of cards last night. ... We lost five in a row and we still find a way to find time on the road and just gain camaraderie. Go out there and just have fun."
"Everybody don't play cards," Wade said with a laugh. "But [it was] a lot of guys in the rotation and I think it means a lot. Especially to Rondo, when myself and Jimmy [Butler] and all of us are just taking that time out to do little stuff. So it was big for us today to do without the shoot around. I don't do that kind of stuff, I normally go back and lay down and go to sleep but sometimes you feel like those moments of bonding are needed. And today it was needed. I don't think it won us the game, but we'll take it."
Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg looked relieved after the game, not only to be able to talk about a much-needed win, but to watch his team play the way he has wanted them to all season. Led by Rondo, the Bulls played with a tempo that they haven't shown in weeks, outscoring the Hornets 18-2 in fast break points.
"It was just a beautiful thing to watch," Rondo said. "That's why I said [to the team], 'Put this thing on loop, guys: This is how we want to play.' We were sharing it, we were making the unselfish play, it wasn't sticking in guys' hands. We were getting it into the paint and kicking it out with great spacing on the backside. It's how you want to do it. Hopefully we can bottle this up and continue it on for the rest of the year."
After signing with the Bulls last summer, Rondo was the one who first trademarked the term "Three Alphas" to describe the trio of himself, Wade and Butler. For the first time in weeks, the trio all played well together, combining for 66 points, 22 assists and 14 rebounds. Butler acknowledged that it was fun to watch all three players play together so well.
"It looked nice," Butler said. "It looked really good. Everybody was in rhythm. Everybody was taking the open looks that they were given, driving and kicking. It looked really great even when we came in here and watched it at halftime. That's the way that the basketball is supposed to be moving."
Can the Bulls continue moving the ball the same way? They don't know for sure. But there was a sense that the camaraderie that both the card game and Wade's speech provided helped the Bulls snap their losing skid.
"If you ask 'Do [Rondo], I think 'Do would say, yeah," Wade said with a smile, when asked if the card game made a difference. "You know what it is, is just togetherness. As little as that is and as small as it sounds, it does make a big difference. Especially with a young group of guys. That small moment of togetherness helps. I go with 'Do on this one. It helped tonight."
For all the bad nights the Bulls have had this year, they were enjoying themselves after Monday night's win. For Wade, Rondo and Butler, this win was even sweeter given the expectation they had for each other coming into the year.
"It felt good," Wade said of the Three Alphas reunion. "It felt like it did in the beginning of the year. We've been on the court together at times. Just the pace that Rondo has brought to our team it's just been good. So to have that start, for us it was big. That's what we're rolling with. We came in rolling like that, we're going to go out rolling like that. I like Coach making that move and it worked for us."