When the NBA announced last December that it would lift the lockout and implement a grueling 66-game season, most observers already eliminated some teams from title contention, whether it was due to age, youth, lack of talent or somewhere in between those three traits.
The Chicago Bulls were not a team that fell into any of those categories. In fact, they were expected to withstand the rigors of the compressed schedule. They had all the right pieces, all the proper principals, and boasted arguably the league’s closest locker room, as the deep core remained intact from the 2010-11 edition that earned a berth to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Bulls were one of the few clubs that had a legitimate chance to win the championship in a league that doesn’t promise anyone the shot to do so on a year-to-year basis. And Chicago responded by winning a league-high-tying 50 games, but its magic waned come postseason.
Still, true to form, Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls didn’t go down without a fight while facing the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. With Derrick Rose sidelined due to the torn ACL he suffered in Game 1 and Joakim Noah out with a severely sprained left ankle, Chicago staved off elimination on Tuesday night, pulling out a thrilling 77-69 Game 5 win to take the series back to Philadelphia.
Back and forth the two teams went once again in Game 6 on Thursday night, and the Bulls, with their season on the line, nursed a slim fourth-quarter lead and appeared primed to execute exactly what they had in mind since capturing Game 5: Extend the series to a seventh game that would be played in Chicago.
However, the Bulls’ playoff run ended similarly to the way it started – in stunning fashion, suffering a heartbreaking 79-78 loss to the Sixers. In the process, Chicago became just the third No. 1 seed to fall to the No. 8 seed in a seven-game series in NBA history.
The defeat marked yet another crushing moment in a recent string of scarring events surrounding the Bulls. It all happened in a flash in Game 6 – as has been the case over the course of the past two weeks. The Bulls were playing their brand of basketball in the fourth quarter, hustling and battling all over the place, as evidenced by a one-minute, one-second possession due to relentless multiple-effort sequences. They controlled the glass, outrebounding the Sixers 56-33, including 15-5 on the offensive end.
As the Bulls led 78-75 with 25.8 seconds left, they were rolling and in position to return to Chicago for Game 7. It was starting to set the stage reminiscent to the franchise’s series against the Detroit Pistons in 2007 when the Bulls won Game 5 in the Palace of Auburn Hills, carried plenty of momentum, and brought the matchup back to Chicago. Given the fact that the Bulls trailed 53-41 in the third quarter, putting their season on life support, the team’s turnaround was an impressive resurgence.
But it wasn’t meant to be – just like the entire season.
“You never expect your best player to go down," Rip Hamilton told reporters after the game. "You never expect Jo to go down. You never expect being down [3-1], to win a world championship, everything got to be on the same page.”
Sadly for the Bulls, the moments of being on the same page together were few and far between. The starting lineup of Rose, Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Noah was used just 16 times this season (14-2 record), including the playoffs.
Yet, the Bulls never strayed from the no-excuse mantra instilled by Thibodeau. While they claimed they didn’t feel sorry for themselves when Rose collapsed to the floor in Game 1, that notion is hard to imagine because they know they would have had a much better shot at winning Games 2-4 if the performances were like the ones they put together in the final two tilts. The Bulls seemed dead in the water in those games, and who could blame them, considering the caliber of player they lost?
“Going into the season, you never thought that I’m going to have a torn ligament, or Derrick is going to have the [torn] ACL, or Jo’s going to have his ankle,” said Deng, who led the Bulls as he dropped 19 points and 17 rebounds. "You can’t prepare for stuff like that.”
In many ways, the short-handed Bulls’ Game 6 defeat encapsulated their entire season, because everything that could go wrong went wrong when it mattered most, particularly the exhilarating sequence to end the game.
Chicago led 78-77 with 12.8 seconds left, had the ball and inbounded it to C.J. Watson. But rather than running out the clock and potentially heading to the free throw line himself, Watson raced up the court and dished a pass to Omer Asik – an 81 percent shooter from the charity stripe giving it to a 46 percent one. Asik promptly missed both free throws and was the only player back on defense when Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound off his second miss and made a coast-to-coast drive that led to a pair of clutch free throws.
Inexplicably, the Bulls sent four players to the offensive glass on Asik’s second miss, while the officials missed a potential foul call when Sixers players, Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams, attempted to intentionally send Watson to the free throw line but were bailed out when no whistle was made. Every championship team not only receives elite production from players and coaches, but also good luck and strong health along the way.
“It felt like everything that wasn’t supposed to happen happened,” Deng told the assembled media.
Added Hamilton: “That last 25 seconds pretty much summed up our last month of our season.”
As each member of the Bulls tried to make sense of the season-ending loss, it was clear that there’s still a powerful belief in the locker room, a sense of togetherness unlike many teams around the league – the components fans had felt would pair with Chicago’s talent level to propel past the likes of the Miami Heat.
“I really love everyone in that locker room,” Deng said. “I love my coaching staff. Each night we had each other’s back. It was more than just basketball – we cared about each other. When someone was down, we picked him up. We really became a close group. You don’t have the best record in the NBA in the regular season if your team is not a close group.”
For most of the season, these Bulls looked like a special team that contained all the right ingredients to accomplish its goals, with countless regular season thrills, from Rose’s game-winner on Christmas Day to John Lucas III’s jumper over LeBron James late in the season.
But, ultimately, what the Bulls navigated through successfully all year long ended up serving as their downfall – injuries, injuries and more injuries, the most unpredictable, most unfortunate, aspect of sports, yet an inevitable obstacle among professional leagues.
“It’s just disappointing because I know how much we put into this,” Noah told reporters. “Season’s over, that’s tough. We just got to fight this summer and understand the best has yet to come.
“It’s only going to make us stronger.”