Bring on the Cavaliers (gulp): Bulls 98, Bobcats 89

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.

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12 Responses to Bring on the Cavaliers (gulp): Bulls 98, Bobcats 89

    thirdsaint April 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    Amazing when you think about it, how we made the playoffs despite all the turmoil and injuries. Great recap, puts everything in perspective. Yeah, we’ll likely lose the series to the Cavs (I say it takes 6 games at least though), but it’ll be more playoff experience.

    I wonder how Bosh will feel watching the Bulls playing in the playoffs when they don’t have someone like him. Hopefully he’ll say: “You know, this team could truly be a contender if I joined up.” I hope we put on a good show. I like our chances to steal a game early as the rust wears off of Cleveland’s players who haven’t played in awhile and as they sort out their chemistry issues of all playing together again. Once they figure those things out it’ll be very hard to beat them.

  2. Bullsfan22 April 15, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    Amazing! It’s hard to put this season in perspective from a fan’s standpoint, but to me this was the most crazy Bulls season/team i have followed since the Jodan/Pippen/Rodman days.

    Think about it, had they been healthy all year and had they not choked on say the Kings, Nets and Bucks games, they would have been fighting for 1st round home field advantage. A 50 win season could have been possible, and with some smart moves in the offseason, it can be certain the next few years with the core of this young team. A 41-41 season however, seems fitting, given all the ups and downs, injuries, coaching question marks, trades, chokes, bad luck, etc.

    If theses guys are all healthy now and rested from their injury breaks, and we now know they are motivated and hungry (at least Noah and Rose are) they could give the Cavs problems. Bring on the playoffs baby!

    bobbysimmons April 15, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Great description of the season, after the 10 game losing streak I thought we were toast, and I mailed it in. But hey I was wrong and now were in the playoffs and I wouldn’t put anything past us when we’re healthy. We may lose to the Nets twice, but we can also push the Cavs to the edge. Going to get my playoff tix today!

    Brad S. April 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    I don’t have alot of hope that the Bulls win this upcoming series, but then again, that was not the goal of this season, now was it? Shedding the payroll was first and foremost for the organization. Then getting into the playoffs would be a nice recuiting tool. Check and Check!

    Now let’s push those Cavs to the brink and make people wonder if these Bulls are just one peice away (Oh, look! We have the max money available!) from seriously contending for the next five or so years. Great job, Bulls!

    Spike April 15, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    The possibility of Bulls winning the series might be severely low and small, but anything can happen.

    Look at all the upsets that happened during the NCAA tournament this year.

    We’re faster, better at rebounding, and have momentum. If we maximize these advantage, the series will get very interesting.

    Bulls in 7 (I know I know, I’m being VERY optimistic)

    I still got that “See Red” towel from last year, and gonna bring it to the UC next week Thursday.

    Bring it on, Cavs!!

    Go Bulls!!!!!!!

    Future Guy April 15, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    They can’t win, but I hope the Bulls can give the LeBrons a kick in their complacency. At least the Bulls have the superior coach.

    rocky April 15, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    They split the series, yet their counting out the bulls thats ridiculous. They barely beat the bulls in March, when the bulls had Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah out. Derrick Rose is playing ridiculous. Joakim Noah is playing ridiculous. Shaq is going to hurt the cavs. He can’t defend the pick and roll. Rose is going to abuse the cavs when shaq is in the game. Kirk Hinrich is peaking at the right moment averaging 16ppg/4rpg/4apg shooting 49% from the field and most importantly 53% from 3pt range. If he is that type of threat from beyond the arc then we are taking this series, because the cavs will not be able to take the paint away from rose.

  8. Ryan April 15, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    Get a ticket for me and I will show you how a REAL fan roots for their team. Joking aside, I know where you were coming from with your posts after the 10 game losing streak – I think Paxson knows how you felt too.

    I would like to print and frame your summary of the season. It puts Vinny’s coaching job in perspective. He developed a great rookie in Rose, Noah took a huge step in the All-Star direction, Taj overperformed, AND they made Cap room – All under Vinny. Now if someone could exchange Luol’s peanut brittle body with some muscle – we would be set.

    bobbysimmons April 15, 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    Yeah Ryan, I admit I was a doubter, but the Bulls made an amazing run and now we’re going to the playoffs. I was wrong so I’ll take the heat for predicting failure, but I’m glad the Bulls proved me wrong. Props to all who never gave up and kept up the Joakim Noah spirit.

    Boppinbob April 16, 2010 at 2:47 am #

    Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, by getting there the Bulls made themselves a very attractive landing point for this FA class. If they can push the Cavs like they did the Celtics last year all the better.

    While I am not impressed with VDN, he has accomplished a lot in the past two seasons with marginal talent. In light of what has been achieved he might be sticking around for a while.

    The core of this team is solid, Rose, Noah, Gibson, Deng, Hinrich, and Johnson. I would like to see Miller back at a reduced cost. Warrick and Murray have shown that they can contribute.

  11. Mahmoud April 16, 2010 at 3:30 am #

    I think Kirk’s resurgence of late will be very important in the coming weeks, like Rocky mentioned.

    Also, perhaps even more importantly, is Taj trying to contain Jamison. Almost every team tries to attack Taj from the gun, and hopefully, he won’t get fazed by playoff style ball (knowing Taj’s very mature demeanor, I don’t think he will flinch). Does anyone think the Bulls should watch tape of the Magic series? If Lebron doesn’t hit that game winner, the series is a sweep, so I think the Magic from last year is probably the best indication of how to beat this team, although they are constructed much differently than last year.

    I was also discussing with some friends, game 1 might as well be game 7. The Bulls, if they wanna have ANY shot at winning this series, have to steal one from the Cavs, and they won’t do it in the second game.


  1. Wondering what the future holds for the Bulls » By The Horns - April 16, 2010

    […] Feels kind of weird, doesn’t it? There were so many times early in the season and especally over the last month when a postseason berth seemed improbable…even nearly impossible. Especially when you consider all the things that went wrong — injuries, tantrums, trades, more injuries, infighting, etc. — as detailed in yesterday’s post. […]

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