As far as last stands go, this was pretty impressive.
The Bulls showed up in Cleveland for Game 5 of their first round playoff series against LeBron James and his Cavaliers as a Dead Team Walking led by a Dead Coach Walking. And after the way they got hammered at home in Game 4, I think most people expected a swift and merciless execution.
This was just the latest in a long list of times the 2009-10 Bulls have been left for dead. They were supposed to give up after starting the season 10-17. Or after all the rumors that Vinny Del Negro was about to get fired mid-season. Or after Joakim Noah got injured. Or after the trades that sent John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas out of town in exchange for a handful of expiring contracts. Or after that 10-game losing streak. Or after they squeaked into the playoffs only to get matched up with the best team in the league, which just happens to feature the best player on the planet.
But understand this: These Bulls don’t have “quit” in them.
I can’t quite explain it. Maybe Derrick Rose (game-high 31 points, 6 assists) is even closer to stardom than we thought. Maybe Joakim Noah (8 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 7 turnovers) has an iron will that transcends mere numbers. Maybe Luol Deng (26 points, 8-for-11 from the line, 6 boards) is tougher than anybody gives him credit for. Maybe the players actually wanted to win this one for Vinny.
All we know for sure is that the Bulls gave the Cavaliers just about everything they could handle in what turned out to be the final game of a surprisingly competitve series. Cleveland was supposed to blow Chicago off the map, metaphorically speaking. This was supposed to be a cruel four-game sweep featuring at least three (if not four) blowouts. Instead, the Bulls pushed it to five games and played well enough to win three of them.
There’s no shame in that.
Honestly, as a fan, it’s hard not to question the officiating at least a little. Shaq was throwing his giant forearm into his defenders and those defenders were getting called for fouls. Early in the fourth quarter, after two consecutive tough calls on Miller, Shaq turned the ball over. Flip Murray sped downcourt, getting bumped and shoved the whole way. No call. Then, with 7:35 to go in the game, Rose hit a shot while being fouled by Shaq…only the continuaton was taken away. The result was a shot clock violation by the Bulls, after which the Cavs went on a run that pushed their one-point lead to nine.
But the Bulls fought back.
Of course, the fourth quarter exposed some of the team’s warts. Such as their lack of size and strength in the frontcourt, hence the 17 fouls between Brad Miller (fouled out), Taj Gibson (fouled out) and Joakim Noah (5 personals). The fact that Shaq was earning touch fouls while bowling into his defender — particularly Miller, who earned 6 fouls in about 9 minutes — didn’t help.
Then there was the foul shooting, where the Bulls ranked in the lower half of the league all season. Missed foul shots cost Chicago a handful of games (at least in part) over the course of the season. Well, they missed four of them during the final quarter, three by Gibson and one by Kirk Hinrich. Those misses make the final two-point margin of defeat kind of sting.
Then too, there is the team’s utter lack of three-point shooting. The Bulls were 2-for-10 from downtown for the game, and they had nowhere to go when they desperately needed a triple on the last few plays.
Speaking of which, the final wart was Del Negro’s playcalling out of timeouts. Chicago’s final two possessions were an exercise in frustration and futility. Not to take anything away from Cleveland’s defense, which was solid, but the Bulls looked like pickup team coming out of their final two timeouts. A bad one. In all fairness, personnel (or lack thereof) certainly limits Vinny’s options, but any team that has Rose should be able to generate a better look than what they got.
This season was a success. No, I’m not kidding. And I think By The Horns reader Brad S. put it best after the Bulls lost Game 4:
“How many of us would say that this season was disappointing? Oh sure, there are some things I am disappointed with: Vinny’s playcalling, Taj’s dissappearance in the playoffs, all the injuries leading to swapping draft picks with the Bucks, Salmons returning to form for the Bucks, and finally the lack of respect from management towards Vinny. However, the goal of this season was first and foremost to get under the salary cap enough to sign a free agent. (Check) The secondary goal was to play well enough to get into the playoffs. (Check) On top of that, the core of this team each showed talent and heart, when they could have mailed it in. I, for one, am not in any way disappointed.”
Outside of the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards, not too many teams experienced as much injury, player turnover and general tumult as the Bulls. And let’s face it, management chose specifically not to invest in this year’s squad in hopes of building a better team through free agency this summer. That’s right: Even the people running the Bulls left them for dead…and I mean from Day 1 of the season.
And so the 2009-10 Chicago Bulls have officially become a footnote in NBA history. It may turn out that they were the first step on LeBron’s path to his first league championship. That may not sound like anything to be proud of, but in the final analysis, this team showed more heart than anybody could have realistically expected from them. They went down fighting against a vastly superior opponent.
They did Chicago proud.
Vinny on his future:
“I don’t even think about that stuff. I enjoy the experience, I enjoy the competitiveness. It’s about the players to me. I’m proud of the guys, I’m proud of the way they stuck together. They played hard and played through adversity.
“I can’t worry about that. I don’t worry about it. I know how hard my staff has worked and what we’ve done here the last two years. How anyone wants to judge that will judge it and we’ll move on. I’ve been too fortunate in my career and my life to worry about those things. Those decisions will be made now moving forward.”
Derrick on Vinny’s future:
“We both came in as rookies. It would be devastating. But it’s not up to me, it’s up to the front office. They’re the ones that drafted me, so I guess I’m behind them.
“It would be unusual, especially since it’s our second time [in the playoffs]. But the league changes constantly. I guess that’s how it is in the NBA. It’s tough to coach up here.”
John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: “Game ball goes to Antawn Jamison. This is why the Cavs got him. He made his threes, he cut to the basket, he carried the Cavs at times, and he made his free throws. When the Cavs needed baskets late, they went to him and he delivered. Great game for Antawn.”
Update! Bonus stats:
The following facts and figures were compiled by Jason Starrett of ESPN Stats and Information:
1. Derrick Rose did all he could to keep the Bulls in the game on Tuesday, scoring a game-high 31 points. However, it was the defense of G Delonte West that allowed the Cavaliers to hold on down the stretch. Against West, Rose scored 6 points on 1-for-8 shooting and committed 2 turnovers. Against everybody else, Derrick went 10-for-19, scored 25 points and didn’t commit a turnover.
2. LeBron James had trouble finding the bottom of the net on Tuesday against the Bulls, but when he did have success, it was usually against F Luol Deng. Against Deng, LeBron drew 7 fouls, went 4-for-6 from the field and scored 14 points. Against everybody else, James drew 2 fouls, shot 1-for-6, had a shot blocked and scored 5 points.
3. James was 2-9 on contested FG attempts and 3-3 on those that were uncontested, including his lone 3-pt FG.