For NBA playoff teams, each year provides new storylines, different obstacles and a heightened stage in which players are expected to shine. The code for postseason success, though, has always been to maintain good health and receive fortunate breaks.
Without those two hand-in-hand components, a team is simply in position for a bumpy playoff ride that will inevitably lead to an unpleasant end, leaving observers wondering what may have happened had landscape-changing pitfalls been avoided.
After the Chicago Bulls cemented themselves as a championship contender with last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, they remained steadfast throughout this season, coasting to a league-high-tying 50 wins in the compressed 66-game schedule. The injuries kept coming, kept piling up in front of Chicago’s eyes, yet the Bulls marched on and remained hopeful their luck would eventually skyrocket while their injury list would shorten.
In recently talking to Bulls point guard Mike James, who was a member of the 2004 title-winning Pistons, he made it clear that strong health and good luck are a playoff combination as essential as having players produce and coaches making proper adjustments at crucial points during a seven-game series.
The Bulls are learning all of that the hard way right now, soaking in one major downfall after another. They have been a resilient team that has made no excuses all season long. But their list of season-altering events continues to grow – and it seems ready to tarnish a campaign they entered with title aspirations.
Derrick Rose missed 27 games during the season and suffered a torn ACL in Game 1 of their first round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Luol Deng, an All-Star this season, has been nursing a torn ligament in his left wrist since late January. Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson are also still nicked up after both missed large chunks of the campaign because of various injuries.
Still, the Bulls exhibited uncanny resolve, fueled by Tom Thibodeau’s fortitude and his hard-nosed coaching style. But the rigors of all the pain and adversity Chicago has sustained appears to be attacking the team like a freight train at the most inopportune time.
With Rose already sidelined up to nine months, the Bulls witnessed yet another key player fall in Friday night’s crushing 79-74 Game 3 loss to the Sixers, giving Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead. It marked their third devastating day in the past week – deflating moments at this juncture of the year.
The final blow to the Bulls’ season may very well have been delivered in the third quarter when Joakim Noah grabbed a rebound, elected to run the fastbreak on his own and completely twisted his left ankle on Andre Iguodala’s foot. Noah immediately dropped to the floor, wincing and screeching in pain for several minutes while Sixers fans cheered. True to form, the emotional center tightened his shoe laces and remained in the game, knocking down two free throws after a timeout, and made a surprise appearance in the fourth quarter before checking out for the rest of the night. Moments after Noah’s hurt ankle, Taj Gibson banged his right knee on a Sixer and spent time grimacing and clutching his knee.
While Gibson’s injury was not ruled serious, the same cannot be said about his hobbled teammate. Noah’s ankle was deemed a sprain after the game, but it certainly looked much worse than that as the big man struggled mightily to run. He moved around with a gruesome limp in the three minutes of action following his injury – which NBA TV and Comcast SportsNet analyst and former player Kendall Gill believed was a fracture and the worst rolled ankle he has ever seen.
Noah, who dropped a combined 33 points and 15 rebounds in his last two games, had been playing arguably his best basketball of the season, with such high energy and a relentless motor on both ends of the court, and now, his season has been placed in severe jeopardy along with the Bulls’ at a time when teams want to have as many available bodies as possible.
Every loss stings, as John Lucas III told reporters, but this one has to be up there with Saturday’s win as one of the Bulls’ most excruciating outcomes of the season. On Saturday, the Bulls’ desire to raise banner No. 7 was all but shattered when Rose collapsed late in the game. In Game 3 Friday, the Bulls were minus Noah for the final six-plus minutes and quite possibly further than that.
Barring a miracle, Noah, who left the arena in crutches and an air cast on his left foot, will almost certainly sit out Sunday afternoon’s Game 4. As much as he wanted to continue playing on Friday, and as much as he will likely beg to be out there Sunday, all odds are stacked against the Bulls. For a statistical perspective, the Sixers have a 70.3 percent chance to win the series due to the fact that they were the home team that won Game 3 of a 1-1 matchup, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“It’s tough when you got guys falling by the wayside as the playoffs are going,” said Hamilton, who had 17 points but missed 11-of-15 shots.
Indeed, the Bulls have dealt with terrible luck over the past week, and to make matters worse, all the momentum and edge belongs to the Sixers, who have been victorious in the series’ last two contests. Both teams went through six-minute field-goal droughts in the first half Friday, but the Bulls’ offense was especially anemic when it mattered most.
They ran a clinic on how to give up a 14-point lead with 10 minutes, 15 seconds left, failing to implement the play sets that had gotten them the cushion, playing stagnant offensively, and allowing the Sixers to go on a 26-7 run to close out the game. They shot a paltry 6-for-25 from the field in the fourth quarter and made just 14-of-25 from the free throw line overall.
For their part, the Sixers shot just 34.2 percent – with Iguodala seemingly doing everything he could to keep the Bulls in the game, missing 7-of-9 shots for five points – and hardly measured to the standards they set in the 109-92 Game 2 win. And yet, they were the ones who proved they could win despite being lulled into the Bulls’ grind-out style.
Now, the Sixers know the battered Bulls reek of blood, and the team is fully confident it can finish off Rose-less Chicago. If that comes to fruition, Philadelphia will become the fifth No. 8 seed to beat the No. 1 seed in a seven-game series.
“I thought fatigue was a factor for them, they were depleted,” Sixers coach Doug Collins told reporters. “Noah was out, obviously they have no Derrick Rose … and I thought that the fatigue played a factor. That was big for us.”
It also helped the Sixers that Rose was at his home in Chicago, that Noah’s status has been put into serious doubt due to an ugly ankle injury and that the Bulls had no player to turn to during crunch time.
“We had that game,” Lucas said. “We gave that game away.”
Added Deng: “We’ve been going through [injuries] all year, but guys want to win.”
By no means are the Bulls a fragile group; they have overcome adversity throughout the season and have a tight-knit locker room.
However, sometimes, enough is enough. The Bulls’ recent string of injuries has not only put a dark cloud over their chances to get out of the first round – much less return to the East finals.
The Bulls had believed the team’s injury woes during the regular season may have been a blessing in disguise to prepare them for the playoffs. But perhaps it was a dose of foreshadowing, a bad omen for things to come.