Remember back in late January? Early February? Things were looking up for the Bulls. They weren’t just thinking about making the playoffs. They were taking aim at the second or third seed in the Eastern Conference. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah were named to the All-Star team. An early March return by Derrick Rose looked like a real possibility. Optimism abounded.
Then things started to fall apart.
There were injuries, injuries, and more injuries. The offense withered. The defense took a few steps back. Players started looking both mentally and physically fatigued. The team slumped in February (5-8) and had to win four out of their last five games in March to finish the month .500 (7-7).
After last week’s big win over the Heat — which was Chicago’s third in a row — it appeared the Bulls were turning things around. Unfortunately, they then suffered a fourth quarter collapse in Dallas, had to come from behind to beat a bad Pistons team at home, and then suffered another late collapse last night in Washington.
Losing to the Wizards felt much worse than losing to the Mavericks. Getting beaten by clutch shots from Dirk Nowitzki is a little different than getting beaten by clutch shots from A.J. Price (10 fourth quarter points) and Trevor Ariza (7 fourth quarter points).
While John Wall (27 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 blocked shots) was doing the superstar thing and Washington’s role players were delivering, the Bulls were unraveling physically and psychologically, which sort of made this game a microcosm of the season.
Already without Derrick Rose (left knee rehab), Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) and Rip Hamilton (back spasms), the Bulls lost Taj Gibson again after he reinjured his knee in the second quarter.
Gibson was pretty upset afterward: “That’s what happens when you rush back and try to help your team win. I’ve still got an MRI [Wednesday] but hopefully it’s not as worse as before. But it was real painful … it’s similar. But it’s all about how it’s going to feel [Wednesday]. I hope there’s no swelling. But that’s what they said, the same injury, the same MCL sprain, but we don’t know the [degree] just yet.
“I just did a basic rotation. Tried to slide, and it just buckled on me. It was real painful. I tried to just play through it because I kind of got nicked up the last couple games and kept playing. I came down the court and just told [coach Tom Thibodeau] to take me out and just went to the back. I just knew it was real painful, I just couldn’t keep going. I didn’t want to hurt my teammates.
“It’s kind of difficult to put pressure on it, but that’s how it is when you kind of sprain it. I’m just hoping that I have nothing torn but it basically feels the same as when I hurt it the first time.”
As if losing Gibson wasn’t bad enough, the Bulls lost Kirk Hinrich with 3:19 left in the game. Hinrich — who has been nursing a variety of injuries all season — didn’t get hurt, though. He just lost his nut. He argued a call. And argued it. And argued it some more until he finally got the boot.
Mind you, at this point the game was still very winnable. The Bulls were only down a point (83-82). Hinrich couldn’t have lost his cool at a worse time.
But it happened. John Wall made one of the two technical free throws the Wizards received via Hinrich’s meltdown and now the Bulls were down 84-82. Less than 30 seconds later, Jimmy Butler made an aggressive drive and got fouled. Remember how he missed those two critical free throws in the loss to Dallas? Remember how I said he’d make the shots if put in a similar situation?
I was wrong. Jimmy bonked ‘em both.
Nate Robinson was able to tie the game with a 21-footer, but after A.J. Price put Washington ahead again by nailing a 13-footer of his own, Robinson drew a foul and, like Butler before him, went 0-for-2 from the line.
Mind you, both Butler and Robinson are 80 percent foul shooters.
Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe it was nerves. Whatever the case, those four misses were fatal. The Wizards made more plays down the stretch, Ariza knocked down clutch free throws with eight seconds left, and the Bulls came away with another frustrating loss.
Said Butler: “It’s frustrating. That’s the word that I would put on it. You look over at Nate, he’s cussing himself out. It’s tough knowing that the game’s kind of on your shoulders you missed two. It’s devastating to us personally as a team and all of our fans.”
Of course, clutch scoring — or the lack thereof — wasn’t Chicago’s only problem last night. The Bulls got outscored 13-2 in fast break points and lost the rebounding battle 51-45.
Said Hinrich: “We need to execute what we need to do to win the game. We knew transition was going to be a big part of this game and rebounding and we didn’t play good in either regard tonight. We have to have our edge and also we have to be right. We have to go out there and be able to take away the other team’s strength. We just couldn’t do that today.”
Then too, the Wizards used a solid defensive strategy against a Chicago team that ranks 24th in three-point percentage (34.2%) and 27th in field goal percentage (43.6%): They packed the paint and forced the Bulls to launch shots from the outside. According to Hoopdata, the Bulls attempted 22 shots at the rim versus 25 shots from 16-23 feet and 23 shots from three-point range.
Considering the Bulls shot 39 percent overall and were -10 in free throw attempts, you can see that strategy worked out pretty well.
The Bulls were just terrible in the second half, shooting 7-for-22 (31 percent) in both the third and fourth quarters. Butler, Hinrich and Luol Deng went 3-for-16 during that stretch. Carlos Boozer (19 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists) went 9-for-18 and was the team’s best scoring option…but he got only three shot attempts in the fourth quarter and wasn’t really involved in the offense.
So there you have it. The Bulls lost ground in their battle for the fourth or fifth playoff seed in the East. And the prospects are grim. Belinelli, Hamilton and Noah remain day-to-day. Gibson will be out for a few games at least, and maybe longer. And I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that Rose won’t be coming back this season.
Mind you, that’s pure speculation on my part, especially considering there has been next to no news of note in that regard (other than Rose’s obligatory “I’m not ready yet” statements and guys like Bo Jackson and John Wall advising Rose not to return before he’s ready). But given how cautious Rose and his people have been approaching this situation, it seems highly unlikely that he will make his return with nine (or fewer) games left in the regular season. Heading into the postseason — when the stakes and physicality go up several notches — is not the time to work in a superstar coming back from a serious injury. And if Rose truly was considering trying to play this season, he might now find Gibson’s post-game comments ringing in his ears.
That’s what happens when you rush back and try to help your team win.
So where does this leave the Bulls?
Said Boozer: “It is (important to get into a rhythm). But how can you do that when you’ve got so many guys that are important to you out? There’s got to be a mix of doing the right thing but at the same time we’ve got key guys we have to get back before we can get consistent. But the guys that are playing are playing great. We’re super shorthanded, we’re playing heavy minutes against different matchups and having a chance to win every night. Our goal is to be healthy going into the playoffs but we’d like to get a good rhythm before we do that.”
That pretty much says it all. It’s hard to get into a good rhythm when so many players are out with injury, but players are out with injury so you can’t get into a good rhythm. Boozer hopes his team will be healthy by the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine that happening. It hasn’t been the case all year and I can’t see that all turning around in the next couple weeks.
And unless it does, the Bulls — despite all the effort and grit they’ve shown this season — will be dead men walking.