Kirk Hinrich came up big with 27 points against the Cavaliers on Thursday.
He has all season. It's a running joke among the media corps at this point, although Hinrich doesn't seem to mind. He knows Del Negro knows who he is and that the coach has his back when it seems like people may be turning on him. That has been evident all season, but it was especially clear over the past 48 hours.
The Bulls simply weren't going to win Game 3 unless Hinrich started shooting better.
Del Negro knew it, but he never doubted that his veteran guard could turn things around when the team needed him most.
Can the Bulls win if Hinrich doesn't shoot better from the field?
"Yeah," Del Negro said after Wednesday's practice. "But he will. He will. We'll shoot a little bit better at home, that's the hope ... "
Hope turned into reality pretty quickly on Thursday night, and that's the biggest reason the Bulls have a fighting chance in this best-of-seven series heading into Sunday's Game 4. Hinrich finished the night by going 9 for 12 from the field and scoring 27 points as the Bulls knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-106.
Del Negro stuck with Hinrich when plenty of people, myself included, figured it might be a better strategy to give a bulk of his minutes to Flip Murray if he struggled once again.
But Hinrich never struggled. On this night, it was clear that Del Negro made the right choice, even if he still couldn't say the right name.
"Kurt did not shoot the ball well the first two games, but he does a lot of things for us, intangibles that are not on the stat sheet," Del Negro said. "All the rotations that he does, he's in the right spot, and he provides leadership.
"Stats to me can be overblown. Kurt has been as consistent a player for us in terms of leadership and defensive ability. It was only a matter of time before he broke out. We needed him to play well and he had a monster game for us."
It was a game that couldn't have come at a better time for the Bulls.
"I wanted to have a different mindset," Hinrich said. "In the two games in Cleveland I really didn't get my chance to have a game to help the team offensively. I just wanted to be a little bit more aggressive tonight, and that's usually the difference for me."
It was a difference that was noticeable to his teammates.
"I think it just took him a while to [get comfortable]," Bulls center Brad Miller said. "He shot the ball real well the last couple weeks of the season when we were trying to make the playoff push. Kirk's a vet, obviously. He's been in Chicago the longest, and he's got a lot of pride. He was playing his butt off."
He was also earning the respect of the Cavaliers.
"I think he really was the X factor tonight," Cavs guard Mo WIlliams said. "He made plays off the ball, he made shots, he also got the ball off the screen and roll. We have to make an adjustment going into Sunday about how we're going to play against their guards."
An adjustment against Hinrich would have seemed laughable just a few days ago, but it just goes to show you how important his shooting can be to the Bulls. They are a completely different team when he is on target -- and a much more confident one as well.
In typical Hinrich fashion, he downplayed the effect that this game would have on his confidence going forward.
"It's big," he said. "But it's still one game. We're still down in this series. We're going to continue to try and play like the underdog and fight as hard as we can and see if we can make a series out of this."
By winning on Thursday night, Hinrich and Co. already made this series more competitive than most thought it would be.
By sticking with Hinrich, Del Negro proved that he made the right move when his team's season was on the line.