Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bulls' Season on the Ropes

Rewind back just over a week ago. The Bulls' season, on the eve of the playoffs, was full of promise. They were not only the number 1 seed; they were a fundamentally sound, disciplined, dangerous team finally read to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. The team had their sights set on the Eastern Conference finals with Miami, with all the confidence in the world that a year after their loss, it was now their turn to advance to the finals. They had the best coach in the NBA, regardless of who the award went to. The front court of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer was clicking, Rip Hamilton was finally playing as the team had hoped when they signed him, and most importantly, Derrick Rose was back and ready to attack the playoffs. And for most of Game 1, the Bulls were right on schedule. D Rose & Company were dominating Philadelphia for most of the game, until the Bulls' season and future was thrown into doubt when Derrick went down.

And now, flash forward two games and you have the ultra confident team that we knew so well, that this city LOVED like a family member, on the ropes and down 2-1 in the series. A quick glance from an outsider may think that being down 2-1 isn't the end of the world. But those who've followed this team, and I mean this particular team that has taken the city by storm, know that by all accounts the Bulls look finished. All of the indicators are there: Noah getting hurt, Tom Thibodeau being outcoached, no execution, bad leadership, and the best players not stepping up. It's frightening how quickly the season has become unraveled, and it's a testament to just how important Derrick Rose is.

Noah's injury could be the nail in the coffin
Let's take a quick look at last night. After the debacle of Game 2, the Bulls came out and looked like a focused team. Boozer looked great at the start, downing jumpers and being active on the boards. He dropped in 10 points in the first half, finishing with 18. The fact that he led the team in scoring tells you everything you need to know about how this game finished. Noah was his usual fiery self, pacing the team on both ends of the court with his energy alone. But, as this Bulls' season and luck would have it, he looked like he severely sprained his ankle in the second half. And what happens when he goes down? The classless Philly fans start cheering and clapping, only to start booing when he gets up and walks off. I can't think of a more classless collective group of clowns. These are the guys who booed Santa Claus and cheered when Michael Irvin was immobilized on the field with a neck injury. I hope they enjoy having the worst fan reputation in sports. I thought Philly was the city of brotherly love? Well I guess they are kind of bitter, considering their basketball team hasn't won a championship since 1983, their football team hasn't won a championship since 1960, and their hockey team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1975. Or maybe they remember only two seasons ago, when the 76ers were 27-55. You would think with that kind of intensity that they would sell a playoff game out, but they couldn't even do that. Regardless, it's an embarrassment to sports. More importantly, though, I wouldn't imagine that Noah would be back for Game 4.

Overall, the Bulls played well, at least through three quarters. The defense was much better, limiting the Sixers to only 10 fast break points and 28 points in the paint. I thought that was the key to the game, or most of it, because preventing Philadelphia from getting fast break points and points in the paint curtails their chances at easy baskets. It thus forces them to rely on a mid range jump shooting game, which plays into the Bulls' strengths of on ball defending and defensive rebounding. Really, it's how their defense has been successful all year. It was also great to see Taj Gibson get back to his normal self. There was a scare for a minute when he went down in the second half, but he bounced back to have a stretch where he absolutely dominated on the offensive boards and on defense.

At this point even Rip Hamilton showed up, hitting a big three and a nice mid range jumper to take advantage of the stifling Bulls defense and to expand the lead. The Bulls dominated in the assist category too, meaning that they took advantage of good ball movement to not only create better looks, but cause Philly to be out of position, leading to a better chance at offensive rebounds for the Bulls. Not to mention that even if Philly did grab defensive rebounds after the Bulls moved the ball well, chances are they'd be out of position and it wouldn't lead to a fast break. It was no coincidence that this stretch was the best of the game for the Bulls, who held a double digit lead and looked to be ready to cruise to the finish, turning this season around. Even the loss of Noah at the time didn't look like it was going to matter, at least for this game.

Deng was MIA
And then the last 8 minutes or so of the game happened. The Bulls went ice cold, and Philly chipped back into the game. With 5 minutes left, the Bulls' 14 point lead was already down to 5. The 76ers were gashing the Bulls with midrange jumpers left and right, and the Bulls couldn't answer on offense. For some reason John Lucas played the vast majority of the game, and his inadequacies (to put it nicely) showed as the Bulls choked the game away. On nearly every possession, Lucas brought the ball up, was double teamed at the top of the perimeter, struggled to get a pass off, and one of the players would have to eventually chuck up a shot as the shot clock was counting down. No one stepped up. Rip Hamilton disappeared. Luol Deng was NOWHERE to be found. Boozer went cold too, but at least he was attempting shots.

Even worse, though, was that creeping feeling that all was lost, the one we knew all to well from the second half of Game 2, was back and in full force. When Philly was making a run, everyone in the arena knew what was going to happen. How could this happen? How could a team, with supposedly the best coach in the NBA, an All Star veteran in Luol Deng, an veteran big man in Boozer, a veteran in Rip Hamilton, and the deepest bench of the league just fall flat on its face, choking a big league, seemingly demoralized at the first sign of trouble?

The answer is simple. These guys have been standing in line at the Derrick Rose buffet for the past two years and don't know what to do when the restaurant closes. Derrick made life easy for everyone. He opened the floor, he drew the bulk of the defense to him, and most importantly, put all the pressure of leadership on himself at all times. Need a shot in the fourth quarter? Call on D Rose. And even if one of the other good players on the team stepped up, it was because Derrick made it possible. So really, the Bulls haven't had a chance to adjust yet to life after Derrick when it matters most - the fourth quarter.

It was hard to watch. After Noah went down, any sense of urgency, energy, or leadership went with him. At no point did any of these veterans, all of whom have played on all star teams and deep into the playoffs, step up and stop the bleeding. It didn't help that they had intramural champion John Lucas leading the show for some inexplicable reason, but the fact remains: Deng (making $12 million), Boozer (making $13.5 million), and Hamilton (making $5 million) weren't there when they should have been, and it cost the Bulls the game. It may be harsh, or even unfair, in such a team game to lay a lot of the blame on those guys. But the Bulls should have been able to hold onto a 14 point lead even without Noah and Rose, and those guys are paid like stars. Want to make a ton of money and be known as a good player? Act like it. Only 5 points from Luol Deng is a disgrace, and really, we haven't heard his name the entire series.

Thibs has not had a good series
Regardless, there's plenty of blame to go around. I would just like to give thanks right now for John Lucas, who showed most of us why he's bounced around from league to league and team to team. Why did he get so many minutes? That's right, CJ Watson was horrible again. Still, though, I question Thibs' judgment on this one. In the fourth quarter, it would have been nice to just have the point guard facilitate and execute some offense. I don't think anyone can say with a straight face that Lucas, regardless of CJ's shooting woes, is a better option just for that. Really, though, Thibs has been outcoached for the past two games. The playoffs are a different animal. You face the same team over and over, so adjustments by the coach are just as important as anything on the court. In this area, Thibs has been owned by Philly coach Doug Collins. You saw the 76ers change the intensity of their defense in the fourth quarter, pressuring Lucas to make poor decisions, hoping the Bulls would flounder around without Derrick Rose, and taking advantage of Noah's injury on defense - all of these were adjustments made by Collins that swayed the game.

Thibs, on the other hand, wasn't at his best. For one, why wasn't CJ in the game? How does that make sense? I understand that he hasn't performed well on offense since Derrick went down (and what does that say about CJ?) but there is no doubt that in the fourth quarter, when the Bulls needed someone to guide their offense and actually execute something in the half court, CJ was the better option. Instead, we only saw him for 20 minutes the entire game. And in that fourth quarter, when Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday, and Lou Williams were getting baskets, why didn't we see Ronnie Brewer? He's a superb defender and would have been great on Turner. Instead, he didn't play at all, and only got 13 minutes in each of the other two games. I have no clue what Thibs is doing here. We even saw Jimmy Butler last night. Brewer could have brought defense and energy, like he did all year, and perhaps even provided a spark on offense. I guess we'll never know because Thibs didn't play him.

Same goes for Taj Gibson. Taj was great during the best Bulls stretch of the game, and then we didn't see him again. And why didn't Thibs not only call timeouts at the right time to stop Philly's momentum, but draw up better adjustments in those timeouts? Instead, each time Thibs called a timeout in the fourth quarter the Bulls came out and tried to execute the same thing that had been so unsuccessful before. What worries me is that it's almost like the Rose injury has gotten to Thibs too, who normally could be relied upon to outcoach the other team every time. Yet again we're reminded that winning with depth in the regular season, and even winning without your best player, means NOTHING for how to do the same in the playoffs.

So, even though the series only has the Bulls down 2-1, it feels like it's over. If Noah is out for an extended period of time, the outlook is even worse. I truly do not know if we can rely on this Bulls team, the way it has been playing of late, to even get out of this playoff series. In ways, last night's loss is even worse than the Game 2 blowout. There, the Bulls got down and the 76ers poured it on. At least the Bulls lost control of a relatively close game that spiraled out of control for the entire second half. Here, it was much different. The Bulls played so much better than Game 2, and choked away a big lead in the fourth quarter. When you combine that and losing Noah, it's a punch to the gut. Really, it shows how deep the flaws of this team go without a second player who can legitimately create offense on his own. What's going to happen to this Bulls team as Rose sits for a large chunk of next year? There's the possibility that this Bulls team as we know it is over. I really hope that I'm wrong, and that the team can pull out of its funk to at least advance to the next round. But as it stands right now, the team looks like Rocky in his later movies after he's lost key parts of his team and is struggling to perform the same: sagging against the ropes and about to go down.