That’s how I feel today.
As empty as the United Center will be during the remainder of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.
That’s how Bulls fans everywhere feel after last night’s gut-wrenching loss the Philadelphia 76ers.
Empty like championship promise unfulfilled.
That’s how the Bulls must feel right now.
History was amended last night.
The Sixers became the fifth eight seed to win a first-round series against a one seed, joining the 2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies, the 2006-07 Golden State Warriors, the 1998-99 New York Knicks and 1993-94 Denver Nuggets.
The Bulls are the flip side of that coin. Their defeat won’t be as infamous as those other first-round upsets if only because they lost their best player in Game 1 and their best defender/rebounder/energizer in Game 3.
That’s not to take anything away from Philly…but the Bulls were handicapped in this series.
Yet they still almost brought the series back to Chicago for a Game 7.
The defense was there, holding the Sixers to 39.7 percent shooting and limiting them to 31 points in the second half. Chicago’s D got stronger as the game progressed. As ESPN Stats and Information pointed out, the Sixers shot 55.6 percent in the first quarter, 42.9 percent in the second, 36.8 percent in the third and 27.3 percent in the fourth.
The Bulls also rebounded the hell out of the ball, winning the battle of the boards 56-33, including a 15-5 edge on the offensive glass. Chicago outscored Philly 29-5 on second-chance points.
This Bulls team has — make that had — a lot of fight in it. Despite all the injuries that plagued them this season, they never gave up, never stopped clawing and scraping their way toward a singular goal.
Unfortunately, all their heart, that defense, the rebounding, none of it allowed them to overcome their offensive woes. The Bulls shot 37.5 percent and missed 11 of their 13 three-point field goal attempts. They committed 14 turnovers for 18 points going the other way.
Carlos Boozer is going to take a lot of heat for his performance — 3 points on 1-for-11 shooting — despite playing strong the previous three games (18/10, 23/11, 19/13). But Boozer wasn’t the only problem. C.J. Watson went 2-for-11 from the field and 1-for-4 from beyond the arc. Luol Deng went 8-for-16 but missed all five of this three-point attempts. Ronnie Brewer didn’t score a point in 11 minutes off the bench. Kyle Korver logged only five minutes and didn’t attempt a shot. Taj Gibson was strong from the line (6-for-7) but weak from the field (4-for-10).
Still, the Bulls managed to come back from a 12-point third quarter deficit and built a three-point lead (78-75) with 25 seconds left off a nifty pick-and-roll pass-and-dunk play from Watson to Omer Asik.
Asik, by the way, played the game of his life-to-date. His stats look merely solid — 10 points, 9 boards, 2 blocked shots, 3-for-6 from the field, 4-for-7 from the line — but he played every minute of the second half and his presence in the middle helped force the Sixers into long jumper after long jumper and losts of misses in the paint (as you can see from the shot chart). Exhausted, hair drenched like he just got out of the shower, Asik did almost everything that he could have possibly done to help the Bulls pull out a win.
Except hit two free throws.
Watson finished the game with 10 assists and no turnovers but made one of the worst end-game decisions I have ever seen. After Thaddeus Young hit a layup to pull the Sixers to within a point (78-77) with 12.8 seconds left, the Bulls got the ball to Watson who pushed it across halfcourt while Jrue Holiday tried to foul him (officials either missed it or chose not to call the foul). With Asik cutting to the hoop, Watson made the pass.
Said Watson: “I thought he had a clear dunk. Spencer Hawes came up, I’d been giving it to O the whole night and he’s been dunking it so I thought why not give it to him again? I thought it was a flagrant, but it didn’t go that way.”
Added Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “I’ve got to get more clarity on what a flagrant foul is. Because I don’t understand that. But you know, sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
The NBA rule book isn’t terribly specific about what exactly constitutes a flagrant foul:
A flagrant foul-penalty (1) is unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.
A flagrant foul-penalty (2) is unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent. It is an unsportsmanlike act and the offender is ejected immediately.
So, basically, it always comes down to a judgement call by the officials. Hawes’ foul sure looked like unnecessary contact to me. But it didn’t look that way to the refs, which, in the end, is all that mattered.
The bigger question was: Why did C.J. throw that pass.
There were seven seconds left. Asik shot 45.6 percent from the line during the regular season. He was 2-for-10 from the line in Games 1 through 5. And although he was 4-for-5 from the field before stepping up to the charity stripe for those final two foul shots, Watson — who shot 80.8 percent from the line during the season and was 12-for-16 in the playoffs — should have held onto the ball. Should have forced the Sixers to foul him.
Instead, he let instinct overrule intellect and passed to Asik, who missed both foul shots.
Said Thibs: “It’s a bang-bang play. I thought there might have been a foul in the backcourt with Holliday. They were trying to take the foul, obviously they didn’t see it that way. You’re running the clock down, you can dribble the clock out, they have to foul. They’re out of timeouts, so they have to go the length of the court. It didn’t happen. Hopefully We learn from that. But sometimes that’s what happens in a game.”
As long as we’re questioning C.J.’s decision to let Asik’s free throw shooting potentially decide the game, we might as well ask why the Bulls let Andre Iguodala take the basketball coast-to-coast before being fouled by Asik at the opposite rim. As Hubie Brown would tell you, the defense must force the ball-handler to give up the basketball in situations like that. It’s Basketball 101. But the Bulls did not.
Of course, as ESPN’s Henry Abbott observed, it was a gamble that could have paid off:
Iguodala had a problem at the line. A so-so free throw shooter on the best of nights, he averaged only 62 percent for the season. In close games, though — an atrocity. NBA.com tells us that in the final three minutes of games within five points, this season Iguodala had hit two free throws. Total. All season. Out of nine tries. That’s 22 percent.
But, to his credit, with the series at stake, Iggy did what Omer could not. He hit ‘em both. Nothing but net.
Actually, it was part of a reversing trend, as Iguodala was 9-for-10 from the line in the fourth quarter during this series. As Abbott also noted, Iggy had changed up his foul shooting technique:
In Iguodala’s head, the experience of stepping to the line has become all new. It came from something his teammate Tony Battie recommended a couple of weeks ago: Think about your kids.
Iguodala has been imagining talking to his son, 5-year-old Andre II. It relaxes him, makes the whole thing feel rote, just like in practice. And that works.
“It’s like I’m teaching him how to shoot free throws,” explains Iguodala. “And when you’re teaching your son to shoot free throws you can’t miss. You look kind of crazy.”
Memo to Omer Asik: Get married, have a son, teach him to shoot free throws.
All kidding aside, this loss hurts and it hurts badly. The Bulls had the best record in the league. They spent the entire season overcoming adversity before finally succumbing to it. Yes, it’s probably true that losing was inevitable from the moment Rose tore his ACL, but this team overcame so much that fans could hardly be blamed for believing that the Rose-less (and Noah-less) Bulls could at least advance by the Sixers.
Said Deng: “It felt like everything that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened. “Every time something happened, we kept making up for it. We really made people believe.”
That may have made this final loss even harder.
And now what?
There will likely be personnel adjustments. Nothing is static in the NBA. Even teams that win a championship mix up their rosters. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks. So it’s safe to say one or more members of this team won’t be wearing a Bulls uniform next season.
Changes are coming. No doubt about it. Now the waiting begins.