For three quarters, the Bulls played their most inspired basketball of the season. They hustled. They scrapped. They crashed the boards with a manic vengeance. And, most improbably, they held a 73-72 lead over the defending champions going into the fourth quarter.
It was last spring all over again, only this time the Bulls were facing the Lakers instead of the Celtics, and the game represented only one of 82 regular season contests rather than a heated playoff showdown.
But it sure felt as important as a playoff game, didn’t it?
The Bulls have been going through hell lately. It hasn’t just been the losing — now 10 of the last 12 games — it has been the manner in which the losing has occurred: blowout losses to good teams, blowout losses to bad teams, home losses to terrible teams.
Simply put: embarrassing.
But for tonight, the Bulls overlooked their limitations — which, frankly, are many — and flat out competed. That hasn’t happened a lot lately.
Mind you, Chicago has a serious weakness inside, and L.A. has the most imposing frontcourt in the league (Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest). But the suddenly rock ’em, sock ’em Bulls outrebounded the Lakers 51-37 and even outscored them in the paint 38-34.
I’m not sure where that came from, but I liked it.
Unfortunately, other problems remained the same. Such as shooting (38.5 percent as a team) and an utter lack of three-point marksmanship (2-for-11 on the night). And the Bulls offense — such as it is — got blanked to start the fourth, putting up only four points in the first six and a half minutes. That scoring drought allowed the Lakers to pull ahead for good. Chicago ended up going 6-for-27 (22 percent) from the field in the final quarter.
Actually, the Bulls might still have won this game if not for the heroics of Kobe Bryant. Despite a broken finger and persistent defense from various Chicago defenders, Bryant went 15-for-26 from the field and 11-for-15 from the foul line on his way to scoring a season-high 42 points.
All the Bulls could do was watch…and listen to their own crowd cheer and chant “MVP!” for the man who was beating them almost singlehandedly.
Said Kirk Hinrich: “I played him tough. He was just making shots. There wasn’t many times I thought I could’ve done something different. There was handful of times I felt like ‘Damn should have done this or that,’ but for the most part he made shots.”
That’s what superstars do, although it has become increasingly easy to forget that in the Windy City. Michael Jordan has been gone for more than a decade, and the closest thing the Bulls had to a clutch scorer is now playing in Detroit.
Maybe Derrick Rose can be that guy some day. Maybe the encouragement Kobe gave him will help. We don’t know yet. Rose had an above-average game (21 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists) despite straining a left rib during the first quarter. But he accounted for only 2 points and an assist in the final 12 minutes, when his team needed him most. Of course, he was injured. But still.
In the final analysis, the Bulls fought, and they came one superstar performance away from upending a superior team. And that’s something. Joakim Noah — who got his hands on a mind-boggling 14 offensive rebounds — said: “When you’re getting blown out by 30 points, how can you say we’re improving? But I think tonight, we can look at ourselves and say we gave it everything we had and put ourselves in a situation to win the game and we just missed some open shots and some layups. I think if we bring that energy we should be happy with ourselves.”
True. Of course, I can’t help but wonder what might have been — specifically in losses against the Bucks, Heat, Nets and Raptors — if the Bulls could only play with that kind of passion and intensity every night.
I hope we get to find out.