In many ways — and perhaps fittingly — last night’s regular-season finale seemed to epitomize the roller coaster ride the Bulls have been on all season.
With Derrick Rose’s season officially a wash (even if no official announcement to that effect has been made), the Bulls had a chance to secure the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a win over the Washington Wizards. Not that they needed to, with the Atlanta Hawks apparently throwing their final two games by “resting” key players. The theory isn’t that the Hawks necessarily wanted a first round match-up with the third-seeded Indiana Pacers any more than they wanted one with the fourth-seeded Brooklyn Nets. Rather, the Hawks seemingly hoped to avoid a second round match-up (and certain elimination) against the Miami Heat.
Of course, that assumes the Hawks — who finished the season by losing 15 of their last 26 games — will actually make it to the second round. Which certainly isn’t a given. But it’s cute that they’re planning ahead just in case.
As is their way, the Bulls weren’t concerned about seeding or playoff match-ups in any round, they just wanted to play well and win their final game. Maybe develop some much-needed chemistry after a season that saw them lose a staggering 188 player games due to injury. This isn’t a team that concedes anything for any reason.
And in the first quarter, the Bulls looked ready to take care of business and seize their playoff destiny by the throat. They shot 14-for-24, led by as many as 21 points, and finished the quarter with a 31-15 lead.
However, where the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are concerned, nothing is ever quite that easy.
After shooting a miserable 5-for-20 during the first quarter, the Wizards went 12-for-23 in the second, outscoring the Bulls 32-21 and pulling to within 52-47 by halftime. From that point on, the game was a dog fight, with the Bulls unable to contain A.J. Price (24 points), John Wall (23 points, 5 assists, 3 steals) or Chris Singleton (13 points, 6-for-10, 7 rebounds).
Still, every time it looked like the Wizards were poised to take the game over, the Bulls got a timely three-pointer from somebody. Kirk Hinrich hit a very long three (for him) with 9:53 left in the third quarter after the Wizards had closed to within 54-48. After Washington had gotten to within 69-66 with less than a minute left in the third, Nate Robinson beat the shot clock with a 26-footer of his own.
Jimmy Butler drilled a three less than a minute into the fourth quarter after the Wizards had clawed to within 74-70. And when they got to within 77-73, Robinson nailed another triple. Then, with 1:42 and the Wizards down 89-85, Luol Deng joined the three-party with a nearly arc-less 25-footer.
Price and Wall made the final minute and a half pretty interesting by scoring a quick seven points, but Hinrich went 1-for-2 at the line to forge a three-point lead with 17 seconds to go, and the Bulls managed to play enough defense at the end to hold on.
So yeah. It was as easy as all that.
Said Joakim Noah: “We proved this year that we can beat the best and lose to the worst. Up-and-down year. It’s been a tough year.”
Well and accurately put.
The Bulls got strong performances from their starters:
Carlos Boozer had another double-double (19 points and 15 rebounds). In that department, he finished fifth in the league with 44, behind only Zach Randolph (45), Nikola Vucevic (46), Dwight Howard (48) and David Lee (56). Boozer also had 4 assists and a plus-minus score of +13.
Hinrich had one of his best games of the season: 25 minutes, 18 points, 7-for-9 from the field, 2-for-3 on threes, 2-for-3 from the line, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, +18. After dealing with various minor injuries all season, Captain Kirk finally looks spry and aggressive, which is (hopefully) a good sign heading into the playoffs…considering he’s going to have to match up with Deron Williams in the first round.
Nazr Mohammed, who was born in Chicago, may not be with the Bulls next season, so he made the most of what may be his final regular season game in front of his hometown crowd: 22 minutes, 17 points, 7-for-12, 7 rebounds, +21. Mohammed was very aggressive early on and even had a great spin-and-dunk move off an offensive rebound.
Butler didn’t have big numbers (13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 blocked shot), but he played big minutes (43), providing his usual steady production and strong defense. He also hit that big trey early in the fourth quarter.
Deng’s stats look pretty meager (5 points, 2-for-7, 5 rebounds, 5 assists), but he did hit a clutch three, and the Bulls outscored the Wizards by 20 points during Deng’s 27 minutes on the floor.
Unfortunately, the Bulls did not get a good effort from the bench, and the plus-minus tells the tale:
Nate Robinson: -15
Taj Gibson: -15
Joakim Noah: -13
Marco Belinelli: -13
Rip Hamilton: -3
Admittedly, all of those guys except for Robinson have missed time recently, and it was very apparent. The rhythm and timing just wasn’t there. Nor, in some cases, was the conditioning. And Noah often looked uncomfortable moving up and down the court, so we can assume his plantar fasciitis is still a big issue.
Said Gibson: “When you’re out so long it’s like you’re a step behind a little bit. You just have to work your way through it. But when you don’t have practice it’s tough, and that’s why I’m looking forward to the next couple days of practice so we can really get back into the swing of things and get our timing right because it’s tough. In the NBA (the pace) is fast, the regular season is fast, but it picks up a whole other notch in the playoffs. It comes down to one or two possessions every game.”
All of which begs the question: How will this effect the playoff rotation?
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “We’ll sort it out as we move forward. I still want to see how guys are moving out there. And then we have to see where we are minutes-wise with people and then also look at the match-ups, who we’re going against and how we match up.”
Big questions. Gibson and Noah aren’t completely healthy. Belinelli’s abdominal strain probably won’t fully heal until the summer. Deng just completed the second-worst shooting season of his career, which may mean those wrist ligaments still aren’t right. Hamilton and Hinrich are always question marks health-wise. And then there’s the biggest question mark of all: Will Rose make his comeback during the playoffs?
Personally, I doubt it. After being ultra-cautious all this time, returning for the postseason would be like throwing all caution to the wind.
So health and minutes will be the biggest issues heading into this first round series with the Nets, much as they have been all season. And as has been the case all season, only time will tell the outcome.