What a crazy season.
I mean, think about it. Before it even began, Ben Gordon left for Detroit. Then the season opened with Derrick Rose semi-hobbled by an ankle injury. Four games in, Tyrus Thomas fractured his left forearm during a weightlifting session at practice. Then Kirk Hinrich missed time with a sprained left thumb. John Salmons went through the worst two or three-month slump of his career. Luol Deng broke his left thumb but kept playing.
In the shadow of all that, the Bulls opened the season 10-17. This stretch included a home loss to the New Jersey Nets (who entered the game 1-19) and another home loss to the Sacrament Kings in which the Bulls choked away a 35-point lead. It started to seem as if coach Vinny Del Negro could get fired any day…or, at the very least, at the end of the season. Management, for their part, provided only a token show of support and would not commit to Del Negro beyond the season.
Just as things were looking really bad, Rose — who was becoming the subject of countless “What’s wrong with Derrick?” and “Rose is overrated” discussions — caught fire and the team started to turn things around. The turnaround was symbolized by a January road trip during which the Bulls became the first team in NBA history to ever win five games in a row on the road against plus-.500 teams.
In the midst of Chicago’s surge, Tyrus returned, started playing well, could not regain his starting spot from Taj Gibson, began playing poorly, and then finally had a verbal altercation with Del Negro. In response to that incident, and several others, and the fact that he still had not yet lived up to his amazing potential, the Bulls sent him to Charlotte at the trade deadline. They also sent John Salmons to Milwaukee in order to maximize their cap space for this summer’s free agent bonanza.
By February 26, the Bulls were a season-best four games over .500 and looked like they could end up seeded as high as fifth in the Eastern Conference. Then a nagging case of planta fasciitis sidelined Joakim Noah for 10 straight games. The Bulls lost all 10 of them and fell right out of the playoff race. During that same time, Deng also missed several games with a strained calf and Rose had to leave two different games after being dropped by Orlando’s Dwight Howard. Hinrich also earned an ejection and a one-game suspension for bumping into a referee. Meanwhile, Salmons was single-handedly resurrecting the Bucks and Tyrus was enjoying some success with the surging Bobcats.
Just when it looked like Chicago’s playoff hopes were toast, Noah returned and the Bulls finished the season by winning 10 of their last 14 games. They were helped by the fact that Toronto’s Chris Bosh broke his face, although the Raptors were already starting to fall apart before Bosh’s injury. Before winning their final two games of the season, Toronto lost 18 of 25 games, a stretch that included two five-game losing streaks, a four-game losing streak and a three-game losing streak.
Of course, it still wasn’t simple. Down the stretch, the Bulls lost a crucial home game to the Andrew Bogut-less Milwaukee Bucks and then a road game to the Nets, who had already cemented their place as one of the worst teams in NBA history. In doing the latter, Chicago became the only team to lose two games (and their season series) to the Nets, who finished the season 12-70. And even as the Bulls entered their final — and most important — two games of the season, rumors surfaced that team VP John Paxson might have assaulted and threatened Del Negro. Then it came out that Del Negro may have initiated the physical contact…and that it wasn’t the first time Vinny had done something like that.
Paxson hasn’t been reached for comment. Del Negro won’t comment. Lawyers have been dispatched to investigate the situation, the full details of which may never be fully known to the public. And in the shadow of all that, the Bull beat the Celtics in Chicago and then defeated the Bobcats in Charlotte on the last night of the regular season to eke into the Eastern Conference playoffs with a record of 41-41. They will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
Whew. Talk about a wild ride.
The Bulls showed a lot of heart last night. It’s true that the Bobcats — minus Thomas, who clearly wanted to have a strong game against the team that had given up on him — didn’t have a lot to play for. After all, Charlotte was already locked into the seventh seed. That isn’t to say they didn’t try, but the ‘Cats brought regular season intensity while the Bulls were bringing playoff intensity.
With their integrity, pride and the entire season on the line, Rose and Noah stepped up big time. Of course, Derrick has been stepping up all month. Check out his April splits: 8 games, 25.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 4.1 RPG, 54 percent shooting. He concluded the season by scoring a career-high 39 points and shutting down Rajon Rondo in the Boston game and then scoring a game-high 27 points against the Bobcats the very next night. Rose sounded brash and maybe even a little foolish when he guaranteed the Bulls would make the playoffs a few weeks ago, but he did everything he could to make it happen. And it did.
Meanwhile, Noah was amazing. He was like a hurricane in hightops last night. He had 10 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter, but it felt like he had twice the output. Jo was doing a little bit of everything. Bringing the ball upcourt, shooting jumpers, driving to the hoop, muscling his way inside, hitting putbacks, rebounding on both ends…and erupting in primal screams at every opportunity. Noah finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists and a game-high nine free throw attempts. If Rose is Chicago’s MVP, Noah is the team’s MEP — Most Energetic Player — and its spiritual leader.
Then there was Gibson, who was again solid if not spectacular. Gibson — who in part made Thomas expendable — finished with a double-double of 11 points and 13 rebounds, including 7 on the offensive end. Gibson far exceeded all expectations during his rookie season, and he was one of only two Bulls (along with Brad Miller) to play all 82 games, and he did it despite suffering his own case of plantar fasciitis.
That’s the foundation of the Bulls’ future: Rose, Noah and Gibson. When management is shopping for free agents this summer, those three guys will be prominently featured in the recruiting brochures. And based on the way they all played when healthy, that’s a pretty solid three-man core. Let’s home someone, say a Bosh or Dwyane Wade, agree with that assessment.
I have no idea what the future is going to bring. Vinny might be fired soon. The Cavaliers might easily sweep the Bulls out of the playoffs. Bosh, Wade and other big name free agents might spurn the team this summer. But right now, considering all the crazy circumstances, it feels pretty good to be a Bulls fan. The team never gave up.
Said Noah: “You know what I love about this team? I feel that even when times were hard, we went on a 10-game losing streak, I feel like we never let down. We always believed in each other. To be in this position right now is a great feeling, and I feel it’s really deserving.”
Said Del Negro: “I’m very proud of the way the guys have hung together all year, through a lot of things, and just gutted it out.
Said Bobcats coach Larry Brown (with a smile): “Chicago has not had an easy year. To put themselves in the position they have it’s pretty neat, even with people fighting.”
Yeah. It is pretty neat.