It was less than a week and a half ago when the Chicago Bulls had all the reasons in the world to believe they would be competing for the franchise’s seventh NBA championship. The primary cause working in their favor was the fact that Derrick Rose made a late-season return to the lineup and looked primed to regain his MVP form as the stakes raised.
But now the Bulls are on the brink of elimination and have turned their focus to simply surviving, rather than the season-long goal of surpassing the Miami Heat and reaching the Finals. On Sunday afternoon, the Bulls suffered yet another crushing blow, an 89-82 Game 4 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, falling into a 3-1 deficit in this best-of-seven first-round series.
The instant Rose collapsed to the floor and suffered a torn ACL in Game 1, most observers counted out the Bulls to make a significant playoff run. Even so, they were expected to rally behind their fallen leader and get past the Sixers – whose journey to the postseason was packed with plenty of struggle – at the very least.
However, when Joakim Noah sprained his left ankle in Game 3 on Friday night, it was hard to imagine the Bulls eking past the upstart Sixers, a squad that is surging with confidence as it looks to deliver the final dagger. Noah sported a walking boot on the bench Sunday and will almost certainly sit out the rest of whatever is remaining in the Bulls’ series against the Sixers.
In a stunning turn of events, everything has turned on the Bulls so quickly, with such ferocity and misfortune.
“It’s not the way we thought the series would go,” Kyle Korver told reporters after Sunday’s game. “A week and a half ago, it was a lot different situation for us.”
Still, the Bulls are not a group that operates the way many other teams would under their unfortunate circumstances. Over the past two seasons, they have made a pact to not feel sorry for themselves, to not make excuses, and simply play the cards they’re dealt. In their minds, the onus falls on the available bodies to pick up the slack for the players who are out.
But Rose’s absence has clearly put an extraordinary amount of pressure on this team. While Carlos Boozer dropped game-highs of 23 points and 11 rebounds in 41 minutes, both Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton again had quiet outings, putting up a combined 18 points on 8-for-18 shooting.
With Rose commanding all the attention in Game 1, Deng and Hamilton combined for 36 points on 14-for-21 shooting. That’s in stark contrast to the performances of Deng and Hamilton with the star point guard sidelined in Games 2-4, when the two have totaled 58 points on a paltry 21-for-64 from the field – a prime example of how much the Bulls’ success offensively is predicated on Rose’s control.
Hamilton, for his part, was the ideal fit alongside Rose in the backcourt because of his mid-range shooting and slashing ability. Clearly, when the Bulls signed Hamilton early in training camp, they envisioned the duo being able to feed off each other during critical postseason moments. But Hamilton sat out all but 27 seconds of the fourth quarter Sunday.
While Hamilton remains dinged up due to the various injuries he sustained throughout the regular season, Deng is nursing issues of his own, including the torn ligament in his left wrist and the bruised ribs he suffered late in the season.
To make matters worse, Deng took a hard fall on his left wrist late in the first quarter Sunday. It was one of many tumbles Deng has had on his left wrist since the Jan. 21 injury.
Like the rest of the team, however, Deng has put his body on the line in hopes that the end justifies the means.
“It’s been injuries all year,” Deng said. “I took a tough fall there; it kind of bothered me. But I’ve been falling on it all year.”
Despite all the factors working against them, the Bulls were in position to win on Sunday, just like they were Friday. While many fans want to direct criticism toward the officials due to the free-throw attempts discrepancy – 31 to 14 in favor of the Sixers – the Bulls know the game was not lost at the charity stripe. Chicago scored two points on 1-for-4 shooting and had a costly turnover in the final 1 minute, 25 seconds. During that span, they also committed four fouls.
“Quite frankly, I thought we had some good hard drives where we didn’t get calls,” Tom Thibodeau told the assembled media. “Sometimes, that’s the way it goes. When that happens, you just got to go harder, I guess. … That’s part of the game. I thought our guys drove the ball hard, I did.”
A little over a week ago, the talk dispersing throughout the Bulls’ locker room was about their upcoming title drive, a vibe centering around the team’s championship aspirations. Now, Chicago is on its last legs, desperately looking for a way to scrape out just one more victory to keep the series alive.
“All year, we’ve been trying to get everyone healthy,” Deng said. “Guys have been banged up all year. This has been a tough year in that aspect. But we always had a positive mindset, and guys were always rehabbing, trying to get back. Going into the playoffs, we felt great about it. And now, even though we got people down and we’re down 3-1, the belief is still in here.”
Yes, the Bulls will go down swinging in Game 5 Tuesday night in Chicago; Thibodeau will make sure of that, not to mention their self-imposed standards. But that belief, so strong and lively most of the season, is waning, dropping, and nearing its demise.