The Bulls went into their do-or-die Game 5 in the Miami both with and without the usual cast of characters.
Derrick Rose missed the game and by extension missed the entire season, leading at least one writer to describe his much hyped “Return” packaged by Adidas as a hoax. On top of that melodrama, Kirk Hinrich (calf) and Luol Deng (illness) never recovered enough to play a single second round game, which had to be extremely frustrating for the both of them.
Meanwhile, four starters — Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson — logged 40+ minutes, with Robinson sitting for less than a minute and a half and Butler again going the full 48.
The only surprise of the night was the unexpected resurrection of Rip Hamilton. Not only did Hamilton log 35 minutes off the bench in place of an increasingly ineffective Marco Belinelli, he scored 15 points on 12 shots and compiled a game-high plus-minus score of +12.
The Bulls were coming off the worst offensive performance in their playoff history, so virtually anything would have been an improvement, but they were actually pretty effective on offense. thanks largely to strong games from Boozer (26 points, 10-for-19, 14 rebounds), Robinson (21 points, 4-for-7 on threes, 6 assists) and Butler (19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals), the Bulls scored at a rate of 108.7 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference).
And, believe it or not, the Bulls were in good position to win this game.
Despite a disastrous first seven minutes that saw them fall behind 22-4, the Bulls did what these Bulls have done for the entirety of the Tom Thibodeau era.
They refused to panic.
By the end of the first quarter, Chicago trailed by only nine points. After outscoring Miami 32-17 in the second quarter, the Bulls took a six-point lead into halftime. That lead expanded to 11 points (75-64) with just under two minutes left in the third quarter. And it seemed like the miraculous was about to happen.
Then Miami cranked up their intensity.
On offense, the Heat went to their old standbys. Shane Battier knocked down two threes thanks to a couple drive-and-kick moves by LeBron James. Norris Cole had a brief hot streak, hitting from 17 feet and then serving up a facial at the rim. Dwyane Wade — who had to retreat to Miami’s locker room between the third and fourth quarters to have his knee re-taped — emerged from his funk to hit two of his patented running one-handers and later had a putback dunk of a missed Cole jumper. And between all those plays, LeBron was directing traffic, driving the ball and drawing fouls.
In all, the Bulls were outscored 24-15 in the fourth quarter but still managed to be down only three points and have possession of the ball with 26.4 seconds left. Unfortunately, Thibodeau had already used all his timeouts, and the Bulls were forced to freelance on that final possession.
It was not a smooth possession by any stretch of the imagination. The Bulls players were running around helter skelter in a frantic attempt to get any kind of clean or dirty look at the rim. Robinson squeezed off a three-pointer that missed badly, but Boozer corralled the offensive rebound. The ball ended up in Butler’s hands. After freeing himself up with a few ball fakes, Butler jacked a triple of his own, which also missed badly. Robinson somehow ended up with the rebound, but there wasn’t enough time left to get any kind of shot.
Said Noah: “We kept fighting. And kept fighting.”
Added Boozer: “We grinded it out. We had chances. We just fell a little bit short.”
Just a little bit short in this game. And a lot short in this series.
And yet, despite the loss, Chicago’s performance in this final game far exceeded expectations. Which is something the Bulls had been doing all season.
Said Thibodeau: “Obviously we’re disappointed in losing the series. But I was never disappointed in our team. I thought our team fought hard all year long. There was no quit in them.”
Added Boozer: “We’ve got warriors here. If we’re healthy next season, we’re going to be pretty good.”
Of course. But good enough to defeat the Miami Heat?
ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell doesn’t think so. Not as presently constructed. Of course, the Bulls won’t return next season as presently constructed.
For starters, barring an unforeseen calamity or setback, Rose should return in 2013-14.
Furthermore, Hamilton probably won’t be back — the third year of his contract isn’t guaranteed and I just can’t see the Bulls paying Rip $5 million next season — leaving the former Piston to wistfully consider what might have been.
There’s also a good chance Robinson won’t be back. Although he’d like to be.
Said Robinson: “I would love to [come back]. Honestly, I really would. But knowing the guys that we have here, I know it’s probably limited space for me, but we’ll see how it goes. [I’ll] talk to my agent and stuff like that and figure out what’s the best plan for me. God has blessed me this far [to] continue to play the game that I love. I love this team, I love these guys, and if I could stay here it would be wonderful.”
Although Robinson had a strong season and was often the team’s best offensive player, there are several reasons the Bulls might not bring him back. For starters, there could be a logjam in a backcourt that includes Rose, Hinrich, Butler (at times), Belinelli (if he is re-signed) and Marquis Teague.
Will the Bulls — a notoriously fiscally responsible team (read that: cheap) — want to pay him? Especially if they end up bringing Belinelli back?
And will Belinelli be back? Management likes his skill set, but Marco shot a career-low 35.7 percent from three-point range, and his Effective Field Goal Percentage also dipped to a career-worst mark.
Then too, the Bulls desperately need more three-point shooters. They ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 29th in attempts this season. That won’t cut it in today’s NBA. And anyway, Rose will need shooters to space the floor for his drives, assuming he returns to anything like his old form.
There are big questions and big if’s heading into this offseason. And, for better or worse, most of the improvement will have to come from within. The Bulls don’t have the financial flexibility to sign any high-caliber players, and they still wouldn’t be able to do so even if they used the amnesty provision to offload Boozer’s contract, so you can probably expect Carlos to return for at least one more season. My guess is that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer in the summer of 2014 when Deng and Hinrich’s contracts come off the books.
So while the roster will likely be shifted around and tweaked where possible, management will probably field mostly the same team with an eager eye toward the following offseason. Meaning the Bulls and their fans will have to rely on improved health, internal development and maybe one or two key role players who might be able to contribute.
To what result? Nobody knows.
Said Noah: “It’s hard right now because we just lost. And it’s always hard to sit here knowing that your season’s over but there are a lot of positives. We’re a young team that has experienced a lot at a young age. When you see what a guy like Jimmy Butler brought to the table. … We’re going to come back healthy, we’re going to be able to compete with these guys for a long time and I think that one day we’ll get our shot.”
Only time will tell.