Game 1 of this series was a self-contained entity. Nene and Marcin Gortat were great, while D.J. Augustin going 3-15 meant the Bulls had nowhere to turn for offense. There were tactical adjustments to be made. Should the Bulls get more aggressive defending midrange jumpers? How does that impact allowing the corner three pointers Washington so desperately seeks? How do the Bulls compensate for the Wizards taking away Joakim Noah’s facilitating from the elbow?
Game 2 became something more with Chicago’s collapse in crunch time. Most of their issues weren’t limited to the game or series itself, but could be extrapolated to examine the Bulls in a macro sense. Jimmy Butler playing all 53 minutes brought questions about Tom Thibodeau’s rotations and stubborn adherence that their way is the correct way because being fatigued is something players simply have to decide not to be, even in the face of common sense. It also brought frustration, as Thibs rhetorically asked who exactly people want him to sit. Jo and Taj are no-brainers, while D.J. is their one shot creator. Jimmy is the lockdown defender, leaving one spot for Kirk Hinrich or Mike Dunleavy. According to Thibs, Kirk has been a “big shotmaker from 3,” which… let’s just move on.
The idea seems to be that their closing lineup has to be maintained because it’s what they’ve gone with all year, which is part of the problem. Gregg Popovich has been lauded for experimenting with Spurs lineups big, small and everything in between in preparation for whatever the playoffs might throw at them. The instant counter to Thibs not doing the same is that he had neither the bench depth nor the comfort in the standings to have the luxury of tinkering that way. However, my argument all year has been if Jimmy has to play 45+ minutes for the Bulls to squeak past the Bostons and Detroits of the world, then it sure wasn’t going to be good enough come April and May. Maybe Jimmer Fredette’s defense is so horrid that it cancels out any offensive production and value. Maybe Tony Snell would sink them if his role were expanded more than it is currently. The keyword is maybe, because nobody knows, and the Bulls needed to see if they were truly maximizing the capabilities of this roster. With 48 wins in the regular season, they maxed out their record at the expense of the overall ceiling of the roster.
So, here we are, the night of Game 3, with the Bulls down 2-0 in a series for the first time in the Thibodeau Era, and the possibility of them falling into, if NBA history is to be trusted, an inescapable 3-0 chasm and that’s not even what’s at stake tonight in the big picture. Tonight is all about Thibs, win or lose. Is he willing to pull Carlos Boozer earlier than usual if they fall behind early yet again? Will he bury Dunleavy and Snell even if they play well? Can he stomach giving Jimmy two or three minutes of rest when Bradley Beal is off the court? This is about process over results. If seeing this nucleus win a championship is the goal, then Thibodeau’s willingness to adapt his principles is far more meaningful than the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the night.