The Bulls have been eliminated from the playoffs and their season is over you say? That kind of talk is for quitters and wimps. For me, Chicago’s postseason stampede is still alive and well. It’s going on in the world’s most powerful basketball simulation computer: My mind. So, in the proud tradition of Marvel Comics’ What If series, I will spend the next few days describing an alternate reality that is eerily similar to our own in a multi-part tale I like to call: “What If…the Chicago Bulls had defeated the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs.”
The setup: In Game 5, Rajon Rondo gets called for a Flagrant 2 after clubbing Brad Miller in the head with2.8 seconds left. Vinny Del Negro is allowed to select a substitute foul shooter (Ben Gordon) who knocks down bothfreebies to tie the game at 106. The Bulls get the ball back and, after a minute’s worth of furious play-diagramming by Del Negro, Kirk Hinrich inbounds to Gordon…who immediately forces up a 20-footer. It looks like the shot is going to fall way short, but Joakim Noah plucks it out of the air and slams it home just before the clock expires. The Celtics cry in vain for a goaltend, but after a brief review, the play stands as called. Bulls win! Chicago emerge victorious in a hotly contested Game 6 to move on to round two…and a date with the Southeast Division champion Orlando Magic. Meanwhile, Boston fans spend the summer complaining about how the officials screwed them right out of the playoffs.
Game 1: The Bulls’ second-round series opens on Monday, May 4th, in Orlando. Pregame prognosticators wonder how much energy Chicago could possibly have left after their grueling six-game series with the Celtics. I mean, an emotional hangover is inevitable, right? But the Bulls buck conventional wisdom by running out to a 31-24 first-quarter lead behind some hot shooting by John Salmons (3-for-3 from downtown). Chicago’s cause is greatly helped when a rusty Dwight Howard, fresh off a one-game suspension for elbowing Samuel Dalembert, gets into early foul trouble for going over Joakim Noah’s back to grab an offensive rebound on one end and hacking a driving Derrick Rose to the ground on the other.
Both teams blow it up in the second quarter. Gordon opens up the driving lanes by drilling a couple threes and then taking it to the rack — bad hammy and all — to earn eight free throw attempts in the period. The Magicians counter with offensive rebounding (four by Marcin Gortat and one each for Rashard Lewis and J.J. Redick) and a mini-scoring burst by Lewis (14 points in the quarter). Superman gets back into the game long enough to finish the half with a near double-double (10 points, 8 rebounds). He also sends Noah to the bench with four fouls, leading many critics to openly wonder why Vinny left Joakim in the game — and guarding the league’s best center — after Jo had picked up his third. The halftime score: 64-63, Bulls.
The third quarter doesn’t go so well for the Bulls. Noah picks up his fifth personal (via a ticky-tac shooting foul on Howard) less than a minute into the half and walks glumly to the bench, never to return. Less than two minutes later, Brad Miller has a six-inch gash opened up by “The People’s Elbow”…no call. With Miller out of the game, Dwight goes wild against Tyrus Thomas’ scarecrow-like defense. To make matters worse, Superman’s inside game (and the Bulls’ inability to double down or switch effectively) opens things up for Orlando’s shooters, who nail five triples (two each for Mickael Pietrus and Redick, one for Turkoglu). By the end end of the quarter, Howard has an Animal-Style double-double (22 points, 20 rebounds) and his team has a 17-point lead (98-81).
Rose opens up the fourth with a three-point play, after which Hinrich steals a bad pass by Rafer Alston and sprints the other way, hitting a three-pointer in transition to cut the lead to 11. But the Magic score the next 15 points as the Bulls just run out of gas. Orlando pushes the lead to as many as 31 points before coasting in for a 123-95 victory.
Player notes: Rose finishes the game with 18 points (6-for-16), 6 assists and 4 turnovers. Gordon scores his usual 20, but it takes him 21 shots to do so. John Salmons has a team-high 26 points but grabs only 3 rebounds and has no assists. Joakim Noah ends up with more fouls (5) than points (4), although he does snare 9 rebounds in his limited, foul-plagued minutes. Tyrus Thomas, forced into action due to Noah’s foul situation and Miller’s injury, logs 39 minutes and has a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) but shoots a miserable 4-for-17 (2-for-12 on jumpers) and commits a team-high 6 turnovers. Kirk Hinrich contributes 14 points and 4 assists off the bench, and Aaron Gray goes scoreless and reboundless in just under three minutes of lacktion.