Okay, seriously, are the Bulls cursed?
On the surface, that question seems irrational and misguided, because there are no such things as curses. But it sure feels like a witch doctor somewhere worked some major voodoo on this team.
For the past two seasons, the Bulls have had championship potential that was ultimately undone by injuries. Injuries to their superstar. Injuries to their All-Stars. Injuries to starters and reserves. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of their ball boys come up lame during a shoot around. It’s been that ridiculous.
Initially, last weekend’s thrilling triple-overtime win in Game 4 appeared to be the point at which this series turned irrevocably in Chicago’s favor. However, given that it effectively knocked Kirk Hinrich (and his invaluable defense on Deron Williams) out of Games 5 and 6, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Even without Hinrich, the Bulls seemed a fair bet to close out the series at home in Game 6, as long as nothing else unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Then something unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Luol Deng is sick. Sick with what exactly is the question. Deng was reportedly sick enough to undergo a spinal tap to test for viral meningitis. The test apparently came back negative — thank God — but Deng wasn’t well enough to play and got sent home well before tip-off.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson were suffering flu-like symptoms during the game.
Robinson — whom coach Tom Thibodeau says has been sick for “a while” — still managed 18 points and 4 assists, but Gibson was clearly hampered. I know Gibson hasn’t had quite the season Bulls fans had hoped for, but he’s still much better than 3 points, 3 rebounds and 6 personal fouls in 18 minutes of a critical home playoff game.
Said Gibson: “It was all about being there for my team. I am just frustrated right now … I still feel sick. I just had to go out there and do my job. We have to play for each other.”
Added Thibodeau: “That’s part of it. In the NBA over the course of a season, guys get sick, they play through illness.”
Playing through illness and injury is what these Bulls do pretty much every night of their lives. If the Chicago Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Bulls must have the Curse of the Co-pay. About the only thing that hasn’t happened is players spontaneously combusting on the bench. Or should I say hasn’t happened yet? After almost 200 players games (and counting!) lost to injury this season, almost nothing would surprise me at this point.
So Tom “We Always Have More Than Enough To Win” Thibodeau was forced to ride yet another starting lineup into action. And I do mean ride. Jimmy Butler did sit down for a single second of this game. Marco Belinelli played all but one minute and 37 seconds of this one. Joakim Noah — plantar faciitis and all — logged 43 minutes and 16 seconds. Robinson, even with the flu-like symptoms, played nearly 42 minutes.
Despite it all, the Bulls almost won. “Almost” being the operative word.
Chicago’s D struggled mightily in the early going, as the Nets scored 33 points on 65 percent shooting in the first quarter. And although the defense picked up in the second half — limiting Brooklyn to 35 points on 10-for-36 shooting over the second and third quarters — that rocky start had the Bulls on their heels all game long.
This was one of those classic “hump” games, where the Bulls were tantalizingly close for most of the night but could never get over the hump and take control. They had countless opportunities to tie the game or take the lead, but something always stymied them. Missed shots. Turnovers. A key play by the Nets. Something.
In the final two minutes, the Bulls had several chances to tie the game. Robinson missed two layups. Carlos Boozer committed a loose ball foul. Belinelli missed a three. With three seconds to go, Noah lost a jump ball to Williams.
For the record, Noah is 6’11” and Williams is 6’3″.
Said Joe Johnson: “We just believed. We believed in one another. In practice (Wednesday), we went over a lot. More so than anything, it was about who wanted it badder.”
That’s a nice sentiment. But I disagree.
After all, who wanted it any badder than Noah (15 rebounds, 14 points, 5 assists, 5 blocked shots), who according to Elias Sports Bureau joined Artis Gilmore as the only players in Bulls playoff history to finish with at least 15 rebounds, 10 points and 5 blocks in a game since blocks were officially recorded in 1973-74? And Noah almost made the play of the game by tying up Williams on an inbounds play with seconds to go.
Robinson was pretty productive despite his illness. Belinelli scored 22 points and tied a career-high with 7 assists. Butler ran the marathon and finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and a blocked shot. Boozer had a double-double with 14 points and 13 boards.
The Bulls held the Nets to 43 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 46-41, including a 15-10 advantage on the offensive glass. I think they wanted the game badly enough.
As Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo put it: “Starting with Derrick, their franchise player hasn’t played. It seems almost every time we play them, it’s a different roster. … There is not a team in the league that plays harder than them.”
That said, a team can go to the well only so many times before that well runs dry. Only don’t tell that to Noah, who remains as defiant and fiery as ever.
Said Noah: “We’re a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team, and we’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we’re going to win.”
Noah’s teammates mirrored those sentiments.
Said Butler: “[Our confidence is] going up. It’s sure not going to go down. They know they got to win Game 7; we know we got to win Game 7. Same style of basketball; it’s going to be a fight. The tougher team is going to get the win, and we go in wanting to be the tougher team.”
Added Gibson: “We just got to go there, put our boxing gloves back on and tell everybody ‘be ready to play. It’s no time to be hurt, sick; it could be the end of the season. So we have to go out there, just put forth a lot of effort. There’s no time to worry about small things; we got to just push the limit.”
The Bulls may go down in Game 7. But they will not go down without a fight. That is who they are. Which is why their fans may be disappointed in a particular outcome, but they can never be disappointed a group of players who never give up on a game, no matter the odds.