Monday, April 30, 2012

Playoff Hopes Dashed with Rose Injury

Through the first 46.5 minutes of Game 1 of the Bulls first round series against Philadelphia, it was looking like this Bulls team had what it took to make a serious run in the playoffs. You could tell they were an experienced team firing on most cylinders, unlike their Game 1 against Indiana last year where they struggled much of the game. Derrick Rose looked like he had his legs back, even making some solid drives to the basket that looked like the D Rose we all know and love. At that point, he was even on the verge of a triple double, piling up 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists. The Bulls had gotten a great effort off the bench from Kyle Korver. Luol Deng was his usual consistent self. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer controlled the rebounding from the frontcourt. And Rip Hamilton, a guy I said would be the X factor for the Bulls this postseason, had begun the 2012 playoffs in strong fashion with 19 points in only 27 minutes. But more than that, the Bulls had controlled the tempo the entire game. In this year's playoffs, the Bulls were dictating terms like a seasoned veteran team, ready to pounce on an overeager 76ers team that had perhaps come in a little cocky. Things were looking good going forward. And then it happened.

Rose on the floor as Chicago held it's collective breath
It's hard to describe the feeling of an entire city's breath being collectively taken away. The United Center, raucous in the playoff opener up until that point, was dead silent as Rose hit the floor. I was watching the game with friends, celebrating the Bulls win even as they withstood a late 76ers charge at the end of the game. But when Rose went down, the jovial mood instantly evaporated. There's just some of those moments where you just know something horrible has happened. Unfortunately for Bulls fans this year, we've become accustomed to seeing Derrick Rose get injured. Rose is a tough player, as he has to be when much of his game revolves around crashing towards the basket and drawing contact from players much bigger than he is. He gets hit several times a game, including a few that send him sprawling. But he always gets up. So when D Rose hit the ground this time, especially dropping after a hop step where he wasn't even touched by another player, you knew it was bad. And when you saw Tom Thibodeau run over to check on his prized pupil, and saw the sheer look of pain on Derrick's face, you just knew it was bad. Only a few hours later, the worst was confirmed: torn ACL.

Where to even go from here? The loss of Rose is obviously beyond devastating. It couldn't happen to a better guy. Rose is as hardworking as it comes, and is one of the few superstars in the league who truly cares about winning above all else. He wanted more than anything to bring a title to his hometown this season. He wanted to do it with this team, a team that we've all seen grow together in the last 18 months. Above all, you feel for a guy like Rose, who you know must be absolutely devastated. That's what made him so special to Bulls fans; you felt like he was just a big a fan of the Bulls as any of all us. It's hard to think that there is a superstar out there that was so closely woven into the fabric of a franchise. All of us Bulls fans feel like we've almost grown up with D Rose. Losing him is more than just losing your best player, or the athlete you like the most. It's like watching your best friend or family member get hurt. That may be hard to understand for some, but it probably helps explain the glum feeling on the streets of Chicago this morning.

Don't even try to blame Thibs
As an aside, I don't want to even entertain any of this nonsense that people are using against Thibodeau for having Derrick in the game at that point. Sure, the Bulls were up double digits with about a minute left, but the 76ers were making a late rally. This is the playoffs; you get your best team out there and set the tone for the series. Don't let Philadelphia take anything positive from the game, and don't let them leave Game 1, even if they still lost, with any positive momentum going forward. This isn't just a regular season game where the two teams move on and face other teams the next day. It's the playoffs, where the ebb and flow of momentum can determine a lot. Thibs wants this Bulls team to get better at closing, and get used to having Derrick in at the end of the game. With all the injuries this year, chemistry was one area of concern heading into the series, and the Bulls wanted to work on it. And even more than that, it was a non contact injury; it could happen in practice, it could happen in pregame warmups, it could happen in the first quarter or the second quarter. Blaming Thibs for Derrick's injury is not the answer.

There really is no one to blame for the dumb luck of the injury, but it is human nature to find a scapegoat (see: Bartman, Steve). Yet, there is some reason to look at the shortened season we just had. Think about it. The NBA forced these teams to play 66 games in 123 days, in a sport that requires hard planting, constant quick motions, endurance, and agility, all by very tall men. It's hard to think that even athletes as good as these would be able to pull it off, but hey, the NBA has those darn TV contracts to fulfill, right? You can't tell me that pushing these players to play so many games, including back-to-back-back situations and times teams played 4 games in 5 days, was healthy, productive, or in the best interests of the players. Sure, we want to see our teams play as often as possible, but was it necessary to get 66 games in? What was wrong with 60? Forcing teams to play that many games in that short of a time frame just isn't healthy. One doesn't have to be a doctor to logically deduce that with more games in less time, there is less time to rest and heal, and thus much more pressure exerted on tendons, ligaments, and muscles. The body can only take so much, so when you see Derrick Rose, one of the most popular players in the NBA, go down, and then you see in the game immediately following the Bulls game another player (Iman Shumpert) go down with a torn ACL, you wonder if this is mere coincidence or the unnatural amount of pressure put on these players' bodies.

The Bulls will have to band together after losing Rose
Without Rose, the Bulls not only have a difficult road ahead of them, but they have to do it with the emotional weight of losing their MVP as well. They can probably take Philadelphia, even if they may sneak a game or two in the series now. From there, your guess is as good as mine. I think they could possibly take Atlanta or Boston in the second round, but I honestly don't know. I could see Boston, if they advance, give the Bulls some serious problems. At this point, does anyone know? Sure, the Bulls had a tremendous amount of success in the regular season without Derrick, but the playoffs are a different animal. You play the same team for an extended period of time. There's more time off in between games, making game planning and applying adjustments easier. And for the Bulls, they have to deal with the loss of Rose. Noah mentioned how he felt that it was more than just losing their best player, he felt like they were losing a little brother. Rip mentioned how he felt for the city, losing their best player. Deng mentioned similar things, and from all accounts the locker room after the game was the saddest one can imagine. That tells you how much D Rose meant to the team, the coaches, the front office, the fans, and really, the city. The emotional impact of that loss cannot be underestimated.

At the same time, if there is one team that can overcome this, band together, and take on the playoffs with an "us vs. the world" mentality, it's the Bulls. It's not going to be easy; since 1980 I counted only one team, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, that won a championship without a superstar. That team, like this Bulls team, was founded on defense and teamwork. At the same time, though, they had good players on that team and didn't suffer the loss of one of them in the playoffs. This is clearly a league driven by it's superstars. There were even questions that the Bulls didn't have enough to get it done with Rose, let alone without him. And if the Bulls make it into the second round, and then somehow beat a Boston or Atlanta team to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, they'll have to face a Miami team that scorched the Knicks, with no help from the atrocious officiating or more typical LeBron James flops. Seriously, I detest James more each time I watch him. If you're trying to tell me that one of the more physically imposing players in NBA history, a player who is 6'8 and about 260 pounds, can be bounced out of bounds or taken out as easily as he would lead us to believe, then sell me down the river. LeBron gets hit in the neck by Tyson Chandler, and all of a sudden his knees give out and he looks like he got taken out by a sniper. Give me a break. MVP this year? Yeah, maybe Most Valuable P****. When you see him do this unscathed, and then a player like D Rose go down, it just pisses you off. I don't wish injury on anyone, but I really hope that the sports gods deliver some karma to LeBron and Miami in the form of losing.

Anyways, rant over. No matter what we think about this team and how they played without Derrick Rose this season, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to beat Miami 4 times out of 7 in the playoffs. It would have been difficult with Rose, and they couldn't even beat Miami last year when they did have him. It's going to take a herculean effort from the Bulls as a team. And you also have to wonder how long the us vs. the world mentality can last. Can the Bulls survive for that many series using that as motivation? Keep in mind, even if they Bulls were to duck the near constant trend of the last 30 years of NBA history and make it to the finals, they would still have to beat the best team from the Western Conference. It's just not looking good.

Bulls players though, led by the steadfast Thibs, have adopted a new model: No Excuses. They're going to band around each other, let the basketball world think they're down, and play smarter, harder, and execute better. For me, and maybe this is me trying to find some kind of silver lining here, I want to believe that this Bulls team is special; we've seen this team grow together and know that they're not your typical NBA powerhouse. They're going to have to maximize the things they do well, like defense and rebounding. CJ Watson is a player who I felt would leave after this season for an opportunity to start; well, it's time to see that you deserve it CJ. Noah needs to bring his energy, tenacity, and defense even harder and keep it going nonstop. Boozer will have to step up, and we're going to need to see Rip and Deng step it up as well. Much like a group of friends losing a guy, or a family losing a member, the rest of the group bands together to help each other. We cannot underestimate the strength of that bond, and that bond is about to be tested.

We're going to see how the Bulls respond tomorrow night. I want to hope that they can come out firing, ready to prove to the rest of the NBA that they're not going down without a fight, and the best team in the league isn't done before they started. Kyle Korver, writing on his Facebook, said it best. This team is going to refocus. They're the best team in the league for a reason. They're going to work harder, and they're going to stay together. And most importantly, they're going to play hard, going after everything minute by minute, play by play, until there is no more basketball to play. It's going to be damn near impossible to make it happen, but the goal is still the same. So, for us fans, let's support the team and act like the team will. Stay together, stay focused, and stay enthusiastic. We may have lost our leader, but our team is still there. Time to get to work.


Anonymous said...

well said