I’ve given myself more than a day to recover from that Game 7 loss to the Celtics in Boston, and it still feels like my emotions are packed in a block of ice, Encino Man-style. I probably will always remember that game not for the poor shooting, the turnovers, the many botched defensive assignments/rotations, or even for how badly the Bulls were manhandled in the paint. No, what’s going to play over and over in my mind all summer and well into next season is the 24 points scored by Eddie House and Brian Scalabrine, particularly House’s perfect 5-for-5 shooting (which included four three-pointers). I mean, if you think about it, despite all the things Chicago did wrong, they very well could have won the game — and the series — if the Celtics hadn’t gotten 20+ points out of the House/Scals combo in that final game. That’s like realizing you would have won the lottery…if only you hadn’t thrown away the winning ticket.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Back in January, I felt the same kind of numbness but for an entirely different reason. The Bulls had just kicked off a seven-game Western Conference road trip with an overtime heartbreaker to the lottery-bound Minnesota Timberwolves. That loss — the team’s fifth straight defeat — dropped Chicago to nine games below .500, and I honest-to-God thought the season was over. In fact, I pretty much expected them to return from that trip with an 11-game losing streak. Mentally, I had given up.
Fortunately for me and the rest of the city, the Bulls didn’t.
You know the rest of the story. Despite a season-ending injury to Luol Deng, an angry owner and rumors that John Paxson wanted to take the last lifeboat off the Titanic, the Bulls survived that road trip (going a shocking 4-3) and — thanks primarily to that before-the-deadline trade for Brad Miller and John Salmons — made the playoffs and pushed the defending NBA champions (however injury-riddled and depleted) to the brink of elimination. And the mere fact that I’m disappointed they weren’t able to pull off the upset — as opposed to just being happy they didn’t get blown to smithereens — should illustrate how much my expectations for this team have changed in four-plus months.
Now I look toward the team’s future with a mingling of cautious optimism and nagging concerns. I mean, all things being equal, the Bulls should be even better next season. Derrick Rose should be able to graduate from Padawan to Jedi. Luol Deng should be back and healthy, and I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that he can return to his “almost” All-Star form of 2006-07. John Salmons’ grumpy groin should have time to heal. Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas should be able to beef up and add a few inside moves. And, barring any other unforeseen injuries, the team should be able to build on both the chemistry that has developed since the trade and the experience they gained by making the playoffs and pushing Boston to the brink.
Notice there are a lot of “shoulds” in there.
The fact is, there are just as many reasons to be nervous. What’s going to happen with Ben Gordon? Will Pax re-sign him or let him walk? And if he keeps Gordon, does that mean he’ll have to dump Kirk Hinrich’s contract? And if that happens, who besides John Salmons is going to play defense in the backcourt? Will Vinny Del Negro advance from bumbling, mistake-prone rookie head coach to a slightly less mistake-prone sophomore head coach? Will we discover that the team’s closing push was just fool’s gold, that they were playing a little over their heads and got a very lucky draw by facing a paper champion with an iffy (at best) bench and no Kevin Garnett?
Look, there’s no doubt that it was a fun season and an an exciting (if somewhat unexpected) turnaround from the previous season’s 33-win campaign. And I would say that the pieces certainly are in place for continued improvement (especially if my plan to lock Vinny and Phil Jackson in a room together until, say, October works out). But right now, all I can feel…is nothing.