This win should have been easier…right?
The Suns have been eliminated from postseason contention and have nothing left to play for. Of course, weird things can happen at the end of the regular season. Just look at San Antonio’s recent six-game losing streak.
Or, if you prefer, look at some of last night’s other games.
The recently red-hot Houston Rockets are trying to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they lost at home to the lowly Sacramento Kings.
The Memphis Grizzlies are trying to hold onto their playoff spot and maybe even improve their seeding, but they lost at home to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been on fire lately, but they lost at home to the lottery-bound Golden State Warriors.
And then the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been trying to catch and overtake the Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference, lost at home to the Utah Jazz, a team they eliminated from the playoffs last Friday.
Apparently, there are no “gimmies” down the stretch.
Sure, the Suns have been kicked around the last few games, but it’s worth remembering that Steve Nash missed some time with the flu. Prior to that, Phoenix had some close, hard fought games against good teams. Take that triple-overtime road loss to the Lakers. Or their back-to-back close home losses to the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks. As long as Nash is playing — did you see the pass he delivered through Carlos Boozer’s legs to Marcin Gortat? — the Suns can be a dangerous team.
Still, the Bulls built a 22-point third quarter lead, and the Suns nearly came back.
Fortunately, as has been the case recently, and at various times throughout the season, Derrick Rose was able to close out the game. With 1:52 left and the Bulls clinging to a 91-89 lead, Rose hit a layup while getting fouled by Grant Hill, then converted the layup for a three-point play. With 52 seconds left and the Bulls up 94-92, Rose used his defense to help harass Nash into a shot clock violation. With 33 seconds left, Rose drilled a 19-footer that put the Bulls up 96-94. After that, Chicago had to sweat out a layup by Vince Carter, a missed free throw by Kyle Korver and a final (but failed) flurry by the Suns.
Look, complacency set it, there’s no other way to put it. The Bulls were one punch away from a clean knockout but didn’t deliver the blow. They got a little careless. And it nearly cost them.
Said Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau: “We did not play tough with a lead. Our shot selection hurt us, our defensive transition hurt us. We have to do a lot better. We have to clean up a lot of things.”
Added Rose: “I don’t feel like I won tonight. We’re taking steps back. We’ve got to come back [Wednesday] practice hard, and make sure we get things together.”
Honestly, listening to Thibs and Rose, you’d think the Bulls really did lose this one, or that they were fighting for a playoff spot rather than padding their lead for the first seed in the East.
But then again, that’s the attitude that has allowed the team to so radically exceed expectations during a season that was supposed to be about the Celtics, Heat and Lakers.
Remember: During the preseason, there were quite a few bloggers and experts who thought the Milwaukee Bucks were going to win the Central Division.
But leave it to Joakim Noah to deliver a nice little reality check.
Said Noah: “It’s hard to win in this league, you know? I think that it’s important to remember that. And there’s no question that we have things we have to do to get better. We didn’t play our best basketball tonight, but I think we’re a team that understands that there’s areas that we have to get better at and we have six games to do it. At the end of the day, a win is always a positive.”
I agree with Noah.
And yet…it’s also true that the Bulls haven’t been playing their best ball lately. They’ve been scraping by and counting on Rose to deliver in the clutch. They need to focus. Thursday’s home game against the Celtics should provide the perfect opportunity for the Bulls to remind everybody how good they are.