The Bulls went into their do-or-die Game 5 in the Miami both with and without the usual cast of characters.
Derrick Rose missed the game and by extension missed the entire season, leading at least one writer to describe his much hyped “Return” packaged by Adidas as a hoax. On top of that melodrama, Kirk Hinrich (calf) and Luol Deng (illness) never recovered enough to play a single second round game, which had to be extremely frustrating for the both of them.
Meanwhile, four starters — Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson — logged 40+ minutes, with Robinson sitting for less than a minute and a half and Butler again going the full 48.
The only surprise of the night was the unexpected resurrection of Rip Hamilton. Not only did Hamilton log 35 minutes off the bench in place of an increasingly ineffective Marco Belinelli, he scored 15 points on 12 shots and compiled a game-high plus-minus score of +12.
The Bulls were coming off the worst offensive performance in their playoff history, so virtually anything would have been an improvement, but they were actually pretty effective on offense. thanks largely to strong games from Boozer (26 points, 10-for-19, 14 rebounds), Robinson (21 points, 4-for-7 on threes, 6 assists) and Butler (19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals), the Bulls scored at a rate of 108.7 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference).
And, believe it or not, the Bulls were in good position to win this game.
Despite a disastrous first seven minutes that saw them fall behind 22-4, the Bulls did what these Bulls have done for the entirety of the Tom Thibodeau era.
They refused to panic.
By the end of the first quarter, Chicago trailed by only nine points. After outscoring Miami 32-17 in the second quarter, the Bulls took a six-point lead into halftime. That lead expanded to 11 points (75-64) with just under two minutes left in the third quarter. And it seemed like the miraculous was about to happen.
Then Miami cranked up their intensity.
On offense, the Heat went to their old standbys. Shane Battier knocked down two threes thanks to a couple drive-and-kick moves by LeBron James. Norris Cole had a brief hot streak, hitting from 17 feet and then serving up a facial at the rim. Dwyane Wade — who had to retreat to Miami’s locker room between the third and fourth quarters to have his knee re-taped — emerged from his funk to hit two of his patented running one-handers and later had a putback dunk of a missed Cole jumper. And between all those plays, LeBron was directing traffic, driving the ball and drawing fouls.
In all, the Bulls were outscored 24-15 in the fourth quarter but still managed to be down only three points and have possession of the ball with 26.4 seconds left. Unfortunately, Thibodeau had already used all his timeouts, and the Bulls were forced to freelance on that final possession.
It was not a smooth possession by any stretch of the imagination. The Bulls players were running around helter skelter in a frantic attempt to get any kind of clean or dirty look at the rim. Robinson squeezed off a three-pointer that missed badly, but Boozer corralled the offensive rebound. The ball ended up in Butler’s hands. After freeing himself up with a few ball fakes, Butler jacked a triple of his own, which also missed badly. Robinson somehow ended up with the rebound, but there wasn’t enough time left to get any kind of shot.
Said Noah: “We kept fighting. And kept fighting.”
Added Boozer: “We grinded it out. We had chances. We just fell a little bit short.”
Just a little bit short in this game. And a lot short in this series.
And yet, despite the loss, Chicago’s performance in this final game far exceeded expectations. Which is something the Bulls had been doing all season.
Said Thibodeau: ”Obviously we’re disappointed in losing the series. But I was never disappointed in our team. I thought our team fought hard all year long. There was no quit in them.”
Added Boozer: “We’ve got warriors here. If we’re healthy next season, we’re going to be pretty good.”
Of course. But good enough to defeat the Miami Heat?
ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell doesn’t think so. Not as presently constructed. Of course, the Bulls won’t return next season as presently constructed.
For starters, barring an unforeseen calamity or setback, Rose should return in 2013-14.
Furthermore, Hamilton probably won’t be back — the third year of his contract isn’t guaranteed and I just can’t see the Bulls paying Rip $5 million next season — leaving the former Piston to wistfully consider what might have been.
Said Robinson: ”I would love to [come back]. Honestly, I really would. But knowing the guys that we have here, I know it’s probably limited space for me, but we’ll see how it goes. [I'll] talk to my agent and stuff like that and figure out what’s the best plan for me. God has blessed me this far [to] continue to play the game that I love. I love this team, I love these guys, and if I could stay here it would be wonderful.”
Although Robinson had a strong season and was often the team’s best offensive player, there are several reasons the Bulls might not bring him back. For starters, there could be a logjam in a backcourt that includes Rose, Hinrich, Butler (at times), Belinelli (if he is re-signed) and Marquis Teague.
Will the Bulls — a notoriously fiscally responsible team (read that: cheap) — want to pay him? Especially if they end up bringing Belinelli back?
And will Belinelli be back? Management likes his skill set, but Marco shot a career-low 35.7 percent from three-point range, and his Effective Field Goal Percentage also dipped to a career-worst mark.
Then too, the Bulls desperately need more three-point shooters. They ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 29th in attempts this season. That won’t cut it in today’s NBA. And anyway, Rose will need shooters to space the floor for his drives, assuming he returns to anything like his old form.
There are big questions and big if’s heading into this offseason. And, for better or worse, most of the improvement will have to come from within. The Bulls don’t have the financial flexibility to sign any high-caliber players, and they still wouldn’t be able to do so even if they used the amnesty provision to offload Boozer’s contract, so you can probably expect Carlos to return for at least one more season. My guess is that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer in the summer of 2014 when Deng and Hinrich’s contracts come off the books.
So while the roster will likely be shifted around and tweaked where possible, management will probably field mostly the same team with an eager eye toward the following offseason. Meaning the Bulls and their fans will have to rely on improved health, internal development and maybe one or two key role players who might be able to contribute.
To what result? Nobody knows.
Said Noah: ”It’s hard right now because we just lost. And it’s always hard to sit here knowing that your season’s over but there are a lot of positives. We’re a young team that has experienced a lot at a young age. When you see what a guy like Jimmy Butler brought to the table. … We’re going to come back healthy, we’re going to be able to compete with these guys for a long time and I think that one day we’ll get our shot.”
Rather than the normal rapid reaction, this one will just be a few quick thoughts.
First, a lot of credit to this Bulls team. They were shorthanded the entire season, but never used that as an excuse. They had their nights that they faltered and fell flat, but it’s games like tonight that show you how much fight and effort this team put in every time they went out on the court. When I look back in a few years, that’s what I will remember. That and Game 4 against the Nets.
The effort was always there from the players on this team. From the new guys like Nate Robinson (who when he was signed I thought he was just an overconfident shooter, but actually bought into Tom Thibodeau’s system pretty well—and provided much needed scoring), to Jimmy Butler (taking a huge step forward into a starting role, developing a reliable three-point shot and shutting down perimeter players), to Joakim Noah (who has been giving the effort his entire career but emerged as Chicago’s MVP this season, often facilitating the offense and leading the defense). Even guys who were planted on the bench for long stretches of the season like Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed stepped up into huge roles at times, including the playoffs.
This Bulls team wasn’t always the most exciting team, but they had their moments, and all you can ask of a team is that they fight until the very end. Chicago did that.
A long, injury-riddled season with tons of off-the-court news has finally ended for the Bulls. Here’s to a better 2013-2014.
Feel free to leave your thoughts on the season below in the comments
In pretty much a must-win game, Chicago put in its worst performance of the year, as well as one of the worst postseason games in the franchise’s history. Now they find themselves in a true must-win situation, facing elimination as they hit the road.
You can’t blame the Bulls too much, I guess, considering the number of injuries they are fighting through and that their third string point guard, who is known only for scoring, wouldn’t have been able to hit a shot on a Fisher Price net (which is more his size, actually).
Nate Robinson went 0-12, the Bulls shot 25.7 percent as a team, scored just nine points in the third quarter and finished with 19 made field goals. Oh and the Bulls point guard combo of Nate and Marquis Teague scored more points for Miami (two) than for Chicago (zero).
Tom Thibodeau was so desperate for offense that he played Rip Hamilton 22 minutes. Rip hadn’t seen the floor since Game 6 of the Brooklyn series—a series in which he played ten total minutes. So Rip Hamilton played 22 minutes in a single game after playing ten minutes in a seven game series—a series which included a triple overtime game. And the worst part about it: Rip ended up as the Bulls’ third leading scorer.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Robinson said. “We’re professionals for a reason. We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure it out.” I’m not sure what the Bulls can draw up that will win them three straight games, unless Vladimir Radmanovic turns into a LeBron James clone. I’m not ruling that out, but I’ll say it’s unlikely.
The worst part about Chicago’s Game 4 no-show has to be the timing. Not just that it came at home in the postseason, but because this was a very winnable game. Miami didn’t play all that well, but then again, they didn’t have to. Dwyane Wade continued to struggle, finishing 3-10 from the field with six points. Chris Bosh shot well (7-10), but didn’t have a huge stat line (14 points, six rebounds). Norris Cole wasn’t hitting everything in sight (2-4, seven points). And Shane Battier could have been a member of the Bulls with his shooting (1-6).
“I don’t want them looking backwards,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t want them looking ahead. Just lock into the game that’s in front of us and concentrate on winning that game. We know we’re capable.”
The Bulls seemed capable to make this an entertaining series coming in and actually stole home court after Game 2, but they’ve lost the three games in this matchup by an average of 23.3 points per game. Too much might be piling up against the Bulls: too much talent on Miami, too many injuries for the Bulls.
Kirk Hinrich, still dealing with a calf bruise, and Luol Deng, recovering from an illness, are both expected to be out of Game 5.
It’s not just Game 5 the Bulls need to win now though. It’s Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7…against the defending champs. It’s been an uphill battle all year for Chicago, playing without their best player, working through a variety of injuries to a number of different players, but this particular hill is too big to climb.
There aren’t any moral victories in the playoffs, and if the Bulls continue to play like they did at home in Games 3 and 4, there won’t be any actual victories either.
If the Bulls do go down, they’ll go down fighting. But I tonight is their last game of the season, let’s just hope they shoot at least 30 percent.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): LeBron James did what an MVP does. He recorded 27 points (9-20), seven rebounds, eight assists and two steals. The Bulls as a team recorded just 12 assists, although Chicago only had 19 baskets—so not many chances to get an assist.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): No one player earned this. It should go to the entire Bulls team. They started 1-12 from the field, were even worse in the third quarter (more on this in the next section) and put up some historically bad numbers. Nobody shot well for the Bulls, who went 25.7 percent from the floor. Nate Robinson did go 0-12 from the field, so only a handful of people in history shot worse than him. We really shouldn’t be surprised that Nate came crashing back down to earth.
Defining Moment: The nine points in the entire third quarter are probably a pretty good summary for this game. The Bulls went 2-13 from the field in the third frame, or 15.4 percent. They also turned it over seven times for good measure.
X factor: The Bulls point guards score scored more points for Miami (two), than for Chicago (zero). Shout out to Adam Reisinger for pointing this out. Marquis Teague tipped in a pass on defense to score two points for the Heat, but went 0-2 at the end he was actually supposed to score. That was nothing compared to Nate Robinson’s 0-12, though.
That Was … history: The Bulls set franchise records for fewest points and lowest field goal percentage in a playoff game. Their nine third quarter points were also a franchise low for the postseason. It was the worst shooting percentage for a playoff team since 2004 (Hornets, 24.4 percent). The Bulls worst playoff field goal percentage coming into tonight was 31.1 percent against Detroit in 1990.
In short, that was one of the worst playoff performances ever. At least he Bulls have an excuse of being injured. This very long, frustrating season could have just one game remaining, as the series heads back to Miami.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): LeBron James pretty efficiently sliced the Bulls defense, scoring 19 points on 7-12 from the field, and also posted five rebounds and nine assists. He did this all in 32 minutes. Unlike in Game 1 where LeBron was content to facilitate early, the MVP was attacking from the start Wednesday night. James was 6-6 for 12 points in the first quarter, with two assists and two steals.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): Pick your favorite (or least favorite) Chicago player. Carlos Boozer was 3-9 and refused to drive to the basket even though his jumper was off and he had Shane Battier guarding him for stretches. Non-savior Nate Robinson showed up, as he went 3-10 and turned the ball over four times. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson both lost their cool and got tossed in the fourth, long after the game was lost. Marco Belinelli shot 4-13 as no Bull scored more than 13 points.
X factor: The Bulls pride themselves on defending the paint and the three-point line. Tonight they did neither.Miami scored 56 points in the paint, compared to just 18 for the Bulls. As a matter of fact, the Heat had 16 points in the paint in the third quarter, nearly topping Chicago’s effort for the game in 12 minutes. And after missing lots of open shots in Game 1, Miami shook off the rust. They hit 9-18 from deep, led by Norris Cole (4-4).
That was … terrible: It was the Heat’s largest margin of victory in a playoff game, as well as the Bulls’ largest margin of defeat.Chicago shot 35.5 percent, while Miami hit at a 60.0 percent clip. Miami had 29 assists, the Bulls had 17.Every stat was in favor of the Heat except “number of players tossed.” With all that said, this only counts as one loss and the series is even going back to Chicago. The Bulls have a lot of adjustments to make, but that’s what Tom Thibodeau does.
No Deng, no Hinrich, no Rose? No problem. Against the Miami Heat, winners of 41 of their last 43 heading into Game 1? Seriously, no problem. The Bulls have Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli to fill in after all, that should be more than enough. And surprisingly to outsiders, it was enough as the Bulls took Game 1 and stole home-court advantage from the top seed.
It’s hard to say how many believers this team has outside of the actual members of the team.
The Bulls have every right to be content with where they are in the playoffs. No one expected them to win 45 games in the regular season with all their injuries. No one would have blamed them if they had failed to make the second round without their star player and with others facing injuries as well. This season is already considered a success—but the Bulls continue to fight and scrap because they aren’t content.
That starts with Tom Thibodeau, who, for good and bad, never thinks the Bulls are out of a game. And Joakim Noah has had the same mindset his entire career. Nate Robinson has it as well. He also believes every shot he takes is going in, which causes problems. Although, if there is one thing the Bulls have needed this year it is just that: a confident scorer.
Robinson came up huge in Game 1, scoring 29 points, including the final seven for the Bulls, to go with nine assists and ten stitches in his busted up lip. Robinson’s scoring, Jimmy Butler’s defense and Noah’s everything helped the Bulls pull off the huge upset because not a single one of those guys will back down.
And because of that mindset, Chicago has had recent success against the Heat. In Miami’s last 44 games this season they are 2-2 against Chicago, and 39-1 against other teams. At this point, the Heat know the Bulls go all out every time they meet, so there is no excuse for Miami to get caught off guard.
Even though the Bulls struck first, they still have a ton of work left—and history is not on their side. In each of the other two times the Heat fell behind 1-0 in a playoff series in the Bosh/James/Wade era, they went on to sweep the next four games. That includes last year’s NBA Finals, with the Thunder, as well as the last time the Bulls met the Heat, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“We haven’t lost in a while, so it was very different to come in here and deal with a loss and to deal with it in the playoffs at home,” Wade said after a practice. “It was different from the standpoint of what we’ve been used to lately, but not anything different from what we’ve been used to as a team. We’ve been in tough moments. We’ve lost games before.”
Although the Heat have obviously lost before, the Bulls did some things that Miami hasn’t seen much this season. Chicago scored 35 points in the fourth quarter, the most the Heat have given up in a quarter all year. Miami also shot 39.7 percent from the field, it’s second-worst showing this season.
All eyes will be on Miami tonight, to see if they make the adjustments necessary to even the series, and that starts with hitting open shots. Shane Battier, normally reliable from deep went 2-7 from beyond the arc as Miami struggled overall, shooting 7-24 (29.2 percent) from long range.
Jimmy Butler will have the task of slowing LeBron James again after doing a solid job of it in Game 1. James wasn’t looking for his shot early, seeming content to be a facilitator (he finished with eight assists). That changed in the second half, as James finished with 24 points and got to the line nine times. Luol Deng has not yet made it to Miami, so he will join the team when they return to Chicago. Whether or not he will play in this series is still unknown.
Kirk Hinrich is a game-time decision for Wednesday with his calf injury, but is considered doubtful to play.
Playing without guys has become old hat for the Bulls. Let’s see how they do playing from in front.
If you’re currently experiencing an intense and overwhelming feeling of stunned amazement at what they Bulls are doing in these playoffs, don’t be alarmed.
It indicates only that you are still sane.
You know the drill by now. The Bulls are a depleted team. No Derrick Rose. Kirk Hinrich is day-to-day with a bum calf. Luol Deng had a spinal tap last week and tweeted a picture from his hospital bed last night. Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) and Taj Gibson (knee) are playing through injuries. Gibson and Nate Robinson recently battled the flu.
All that and two days after winning a do-or-die Game 7 on the road, the Bulls had to face the defending (and presumed future) champs in Miami.
Mission impossible, right?
Never impossible. Not with this group. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau ripped the page with the word “quit” right out of the team dictionary, burned it, and buried the ashes.
At times, Thibodeau’s mantra of “more than enough to win” has seemed laughable in the face of the many injuries and misfortunes that have plagued the Bulls this season. But it instilled a sense of commitment and responsibility in every player on this team, from the front of the bench all the way to the end of it.
Take Nate Robinson.
The Bulls signed Robinson last summer as a last-minute afterthought. He was supposed to be a part-time player at best. With Rose and Hinrich both out, Robinson started at point guard, playing 40 minutes and 29 seconds. Little Nate finished with game-highs in points (27) and assists (9). He had more free throw attempts (10) than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined (9). According to ESPN Stats and Information, Robinson became the fourth Bulls player in the past 25 seasons to have at least 25 points and 9 dimes in a playoff game, joining Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, and Scottie Pippen.
Not bad company. Especially considering Robinson is doing it for a little over $800,000 this season.
But wait, there’s more. Robinson scored or assisted on 25 of Chicago’s 35 fourth quarter points…and he scored 7 in the team’s 10-0 run to close the game. His clutch performance made him the only player in the last 15 seasons with at least 11 points and 6 assists in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. All this despite getting 10 stitches mid-game after busting his lip in a loose ball collision.
Said Thibodeau: ”He got knocked around a little bit, couple stitches, it’s all good. Get out there and get it done. … He’s about as confident as they come, and that’s the thing that makes him good. If he misses a shot, he has a very short memory. He always thinks he’s hot, never afraid, and will step up in a big situation. He has the courage to take and make.”
Now take Jimmy Butler.
Forget Robert Downey Jr. Butler is Iron Man. Incredibly enough, the second year man out of Marquette has played the full 48 minutes for three straight games, making him only the fourth player since the NBA-ABA merger to go the limit in back-to-back-to-back playoff games (per Elias Sports Bureau). In his previous two games, he spent those long minutes guarding Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Last night he guarded LeBron and D-Wade all night. While contributing 21 points (on only 13 shots) and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Said Butler: “It’s all about being tough. We’re always going to be the underdogs. We take pride in that. Everybody can overlook us, but we feel like we’re good enough to hang with a lot of these teams. I talked to Lu before the game. He was like, ‘Take up his space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot.’ Of course, no layups. I feel I don’t want to give layups to anybody, make them earn it from the stripe. Lu’s going to rest up and we want him back. But until (then) I guess I’ll be stuck guarding him.”
As Huey Lewis might tell Butler: The Bulls and their fans are happy to be stuck with you.
Said Noah: ”I’m really proud of him. [He's a] young player, but he played huge against the best. He’s like a brother and to see him shine the way he’s been shining in these playoffs … I knew he was ready but the sky’s the limit for that kid.”
Added Gibson: “He’s really talented and he goes out there and does the job, doesn’t talk back, just grits it out each and every night and he’s getting better each game I think. … He understands his role, he understands what this team needs. Whenever we’re down we can always count on Jimmy. Without Lu in there Jimmy just stepped up big and we just helped him. Whenever a guy needs help, we just help each other out.”
Helping each other out. That’s what this team does.
Whether it’s Noah with a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 blocked shot) and great interior defense, or Marco Belinelli hitting the boards (7 rebounds) to make up for his poor shooting (3-for-10) or Gibson giving the team a big lift off the bench (12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, +9).
And there there was the defense.
In the first quarter, Miami was held to only 15 points on 5-for-19 shooting. They improved only marginally in the second quarter (8-for-20). The Heat did shoot 50 percent (10-for-20) in the third quarter, but they were only 8-for-19 in the fourth, including 0-for-5 in the final two minutes.
For the game, Miami shot a miserable 39.7 percent, including 29.2 percent from three-point range.
Most importantly, the Heat converted only 59 percent of their shots at the rim, per Hoopdata. Mind you, Miami led the league in field goal percentage at the rim during the regular season at 71.5 percent.
The Bulls played great individual and team defense, but much of the credit goes to Noah and Gibson, who both protect the paint and can switch out on perimeter players better than most big men in the league. Just ask Ray Allen and Shane Battier, who combined to go 4-for-14 from the field and only 3-for-11 from downtown.
Maybe the Heat players were simply rusty after a long layoff. They did miss several open shots in the early going. But the Bulls also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Heat 46-32, with a 26.5% to 15.9% advantage in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (per Basketball-Reference). In fact, Butler (14 boards) and Noah (11 rebounds) both outrebounded Chris Bosh (6 rebounds), Udonis Haslem (3 rebounds) and Chris Anderson (1 rebound) by themselves. Rebounding is about effort. And Chicago simply fought harder than Miami in this game.
Said Robinson: “I’ve played on some tough teams, but this one is a little different. There’s something special about this group. For me, it feels like we’ve been playing together 10 years. We love to play for each other, regardless. A couple of times in the game me and Jimmy had miscommunications and he told me on a switch to make sure to go under, little things like that. You make adjustments and you don’t need the coach to tell you. He’s younger than me and is telling me that. He’s helping me out. That’s how it is with each guy on the team. It makes it easier to go out and play, and it’s fun. I love the energy and passion. Teammates joke with me and it gives me confidence to go out and play with energy. I love the energy and passion. This is probably the best season I’ve had with this group of guys. God is good. I’m blessed and thankful to be on this team.”
And Chicago fans are blessed and thankful to be rooting for this team.
MVP: Nobody new takes this spot—it’s Joakim Noah. His energy doesn’t show up on the box score, but his 24 points, 14 rebounds (seven offensive) and six blocks do. Noah became the second player, joining Elvin Hayes, to rack up that stat line. He looks healthier than he has looked in months, and he was all over the court as usual. As a Bulls fan you have to love this guy.
LVP: Joe Johnson is making $19.7 million this season. In a Game 7, he went 2-14 from the field, including 1-9 from three and tallied six points. Marquis Teague nearly matched his output.
X-factor: The Nets grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, which is not good at all for the Bulls. But Brooklyn converted those boards into just 16 second chance points. The Bulls scored 20 second chance points on 13 offensive rebounds. When Chicago got the opportunity they took it, while the Nets failed to take advantage. That could be said for much of this series.
Defining moment: Withfive minutes left in the game,Joakim Noah grabbed an offensive rebound off of a miss from Nate Robinson. Noah then dished it to Robinson who found Marco Belinelli for a triple to put the Bulls up ten. Belinelli did a little dance and the Nets would never get closer than six the rest of the way.
That was… “Bulls-like”: The Bulls had no right to be in this series. They had injuries piling up and there was more talk about one guy not playing than the 12 guys that were. They could have quit. But Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t allow that. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Nate Robinson and the others wouldn’t allow that. This team isn’t the best offense, or the most exciting, but they couldn’t care about that. They go out and fight every night and that’s something that should be respected. Noah said it best after the game:“I’m just so proud of this team.”
The Bulls play Miami in the second round starting Monday night.
Luol Deng was in the hospital Friday, possibly for meningitis, after getting a spinal tap prior to Thursday’s game. Nate Robinson was throwing up on the bench during Game 6 because of an illness—a game in which he played 42 minutes. Taj Gibson, suffering from the same illness, struggled through 18 minutes. Joakim Noah is still fighting through plantar fasciitis and his minutes limit is long gone. Kirk Hinrich missed Game 6, but will travel with the team and will be a game-time decision with a calf injury. Derrick Rose hasn’t played all season.
I think that about sums up the Bulls luck heading into a win-or-go-home Game 7 in Brooklyn. It all comes down to Saturday night, and the Bulls roster continues to shrink.
(Quick tangent: Luol Deng defended himself on Twitter Friday, saying it was more than a flu that kept him out. Deng should never have to explain himself for missing a contest. Actually, no professional athlete should ever have to explain why they missed a game, but someone with Deng’s track record should never be questioned. And if you saw the Vine of him leaving the arena, you could tell something was very wrong with him. He has played through countless injuries these past few seasons, while averaging the most minutes per game in the league. Perhaps this is misguided anger at another Chicago Bull, but that’s another story for another time. If Luol Deng thinks he cannot go, and had a spinal tap earlier that day, Luol Deng cannot go and shouldn’t be questioned. It’s that simple. Now back to Game 7.)
Chicago was in a similar place in Game 6 and grinded all the way to the end with a shortened, injury-plagued rotation (with three players coming down with an illness, maybe “plagued” is too accurate). It was a game they had no chance of winning, but yet were still right there at the end with a chance to tie. They should have been in a better spot down the stretch honestly, but Marco Belinelli went 1-5 from three in the fourth quarter (with many of those very makeable, open attempts) and Chicago shot 32.1 percent as a team. Who knows if it would have been different had the Bulls had more rested bodies at the end.
The Bulls dug themselves an early hole, allowing Brooklyn to shoot 65.0 percent in the opening frame, and although Chicago shot 59.1 percent, that’s not how they win games. The Bulls are never going to win a shootout, and giving Brooklyn early confidence is the last thing Joakim Noah and company can afford.
The defense tightened up the rest of the way, holding Brooklyn to 27.8 percent from the field in the second half, but even with that great defensive effort Chicago couldn’t close the gap. The Bulls did hold the Nets to 48.3 percent shooting at the rim (14-29), something that would go a long way in Game 7 if it could be duplicated.
The Bulls have their work cut out for them going on the road for a Game 7. Chicago is 0-6 all-time on the road in Game 7s. Add in their injuries and it’s going to be a huge hill to climb, but if there is any team in the NBA that can do it, it’s the Bulls.
Chicago has shown this year—heck the entire Tom Thibodeau era—that they have a shot in any game they take the court—no matter how few of their players actually take the court. But sometimes those injuries just become too much to overcome, just as they were last season against the Sixers. The Bulls don’t want to be the team that followed up a first round loss as the top seed with the squad that blows a 3-1 lead…even if they have an excuse for both occurrences.
“I’m just very confident our guys are going to take advantage of the (home court) opportunity and continue to do what they’ve done all year,” Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said Friday.
The Bulls will also do what they have done all year: fight until the last whistle no matter who is out there.
Stopping Deron: Deron Williams is 13-39 from the field with nine turnovers when guarded by Kirk Hinrich; unfortunately Hinrich probably won’t be able to play. That leaves Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler. Williams is 12-24 with four turnovers when guarded by Nate Robinson and 5-14 from the field with six turnovers when Jimmy Butler is on him. So in short, keep Nate away from Deron at all costs.
Stats that may not matter but are somewhat relevant: Home teams have won 80.2 percent of Game 7s (89-22). The Bulls are 3-6 in Game 7s, but 0-6 in Game 7s on the road. The Bulls have not won a winner-take-all game on the road since 1989’s first round against the Cavaliers (this was a Game 5). The Nets are 0-1 all-time in Game 7s.
On the surface, that question seems irrational and misguided, because there are no such things as curses. But it sure feels like a witch doctor somewhere worked some major voodoo on this team.
For the past two seasons, the Bulls have had championship potential that was ultimately undone by injuries. Injuries to their superstar. Injuries to their All-Stars. Injuries to starters and reserves. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of their ball boys come up lame during a shoot around. It’s been that ridiculous.
Initially, last weekend’s thrilling triple-overtime win in Game 4 appeared to be the point at which this series turned irrevocably in Chicago’s favor. However, given that it effectively knocked Kirk Hinrich (and his invaluable defense on Deron Williams) out of Games 5 and 6, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Even without Hinrich, the Bulls seemed a fair bet to close out the series at home in Game 6, as long as nothing else unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Then something unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Luol Deng is sick. Sick with what exactly is the question. Deng was reportedly sick enough to undergo a spinal tap to test for viral meningitis. The test apparently came back negative — thank God — but Deng wasn’t well enough to play and got sent home well before tip-off.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson were suffering flu-like symptoms during the game.
Robinson — whom coach Tom Thibodeau says has been sick for “a while” — still managed 18 points and 4 assists, but Gibson was clearly hampered. I know Gibson hasn’t had quite the season Bulls fans had hoped for, but he’s still much better than 3 points, 3 rebounds and 6 personal fouls in 18 minutes of a critical home playoff game.
Said Gibson: ”It was all about being there for my team. I am just frustrated right now … I still feel sick. I just had to go out there and do my job. We have to play for each other.”
Added Thibodeau: ”That’s part of it. In the NBA over the course of a season, guys get sick, they play through illness.”
Playing through illness and injury is what these Bulls do pretty much every night of their lives. If the Chicago Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Bulls must have the Curse of the Co-pay. About the only thing that hasn’t happened is players spontaneously combusting on the bench. Or should I say hasn’t happened yet? After almost 200 players games (and counting!) lost to injury this season, almost nothing would surprise me at this point.
So Tom “We Always Have More Than Enough To Win” Thibodeau was forced to ride yet another starting lineup into action. And I do mean ride. Jimmy Butler did sit down for a single second of this game. Marco Belinelli played all but one minute and 37 seconds of this one. Joakim Noah — plantar faciitis and all — logged 43 minutes and 16 seconds. Robinson, even with the flu-like symptoms, played nearly 42 minutes.
Despite it all, the Bulls almost won. “Almost” being the operative word.
Chicago’s D struggled mightily in the early going, as the Nets scored 33 points on 65 percent shooting in the first quarter. And although the defense picked up in the second half — limiting Brooklyn to 35 points on 10-for-36 shooting over the second and third quarters — that rocky start had the Bulls on their heels all game long.
This was one of those classic “hump” games, where the Bulls were tantalizingly close for most of the night but could never get over the hump and take control. They had countless opportunities to tie the game or take the lead, but something always stymied them. Missed shots. Turnovers. A key play by the Nets. Something.
In the final two minutes, the Bulls had several chances to tie the game. Robinson missed two layups. Carlos Boozer committed a loose ball foul. Belinelli missed a three. With three seconds to go, Noah lost a jump ball to Williams.
For the record, Noah is 6’11″ and Williams is 6’3″.
Said Joe Johnson: ”We just believed. We believed in one another. In practice (Wednesday), we went over a lot. More so than anything, it was about who wanted it badder.”
That’s a nice sentiment. But I disagree.
After all, who wanted it any badder than Noah (15 rebounds, 14 points, 5 assists, 5 blocked shots), who according to Elias Sports Bureau joined Artis Gilmore as the only players in Bulls playoff history to finish with at least 15 rebounds, 10 points and 5 blocks in a game since blocks were officially recorded in 1973-74? And Noah almost made the play of the game by tying up Williams on an inbounds play with seconds to go.
Robinson was pretty productive despite his illness. Belinelli scored 22 points and tied a career-high with 7 assists. Butler ran the marathon and finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and a blocked shot. Boozer had a double-double with 14 points and 13 boards.
The Bulls held the Nets to 43 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 46-41, including a 15-10 advantage on the offensive glass. I think they wanted the game badly enough.
As Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo put it: ”Starting with Derrick, their franchise player hasn’t played. It seems almost every time we play them, it’s a different roster. … There is not a team in the league that plays harder than them.”
That said, a team can go to the well only so many times before that well runs dry. Only don’t tell that to Noah, who remains as defiant and fiery as ever.
Said Noah: ”We’re a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team, and we’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we’re going to win.”
Noah’s teammates mirrored those sentiments.
Said Butler: ”[Our confidence is] going up. It’s sure not going to go down. They know they got to win Game 7; we know we got to win Game 7. Same style of basketball; it’s going to be a fight. The tougher team is going to get the win, and we go in wanting to be the tougher team.”
Added Gibson: ”We just got to go there, put our boxing gloves back on and tell everybody ‘be ready to play. It’s no time to be hurt, sick; it could be the end of the season. So we have to go out there, just put forth a lot of effort. There’s no time to worry about small things; we got to just push the limit.”
The Bulls may go down in Game 7. But they will not go down without a fight. That is who they are. Which is why their fans may be disappointed in a particular outcome, but they can never be disappointed a group of players who never give up on a game, no matter the odds.