Friday, May 11, 2012

Bulls' Strong Effort Comes Up Short as Season Comes to an End

Noooooo. In the matter of less than 10 seconds, the Bulls went from forcing a Game 7 to ending their season. After a season that started with so much promise, with the desire to build off last year's success, the number 1 seed for the second consecutive year, and another year filled with great teamwork, leadership, defense, and consistency, a couple serious injuries and their impact on the rest of the team led to a first round ouster. The Bulls got great games from Luol Deng, Rip Hamilton, Taj Gibson, and especially Omer Asik, but their lack of offensive execution, and really the loss of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, meant an end to the possibility of a special season, whether it was last night in Game 6, a potential Game 7, or in any subsequent round of the playoffs.

I really thought the Bulls were going to pull this one out. After the Bulls got down 12 in the third quarter, but stormed back to tie and take control of the game, I thought for sure that the Bulls were coming back to Chicago. I just thought it would be for Game 7 Saturday, not because the season was over. Sure, the Bulls struggled offensively throughout Game 6, much like they did in the entire series after D Rose and Joakim went down, but Philly was downright horrid. And really, they were bad, except for some stretches, the entire series. Think back to Game 1. The Bulls controlled that game without a doubt. Try telling me that this Philly team, which struggled to put the Bulls away in six games, would have been able to beat the Bulls if they had D Rose, or even Noah? Not a chance. I don't know what the Bulls did to anger the sports gods, but Philly fans - even those typically disgraceful fan who were throwing full beers on Bulls media members after Game 6 - were gifted this series win. I hope they enjoy it as Boston stomps them in the second round.

Still, even though the Bulls probably knew they weren't winning the championship without Rose, or even Noah, you have to admire their effort. The team came out and gave it their all last night. I especially appreciated the effort of Omer Asik. Asik, who averaged 15 minutes per game in the regular season, played 39 minutes last night with 10 points (including a near three pointer in the first half), 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a ridiculous dunk towards the end of the game that at the time seemed to seal the deal.

Omer played his best game as a Bull
Even at the end of the game, when Asik was gassed, he was still giving it his all, as seen in that dunk above. And before we even start, we can't discredit the impact he made on last night's game (the best of his career with the Bulls) by his two missed free throws at the end that led to the loss. Yes, he should make those shots, and he'd already made some earlier in the game. But even more than that, CJ Watson was fouled on that same possession, which wasn't called, and would have prevented his stupid decision to pass to Asik in the first place. I was upset with how CJ played throughout the series, and thought the lack of a true point guard was a huge weakness for the Bulls. But last night, regardless of the fact that he was 2-11 for only 6 points, he still had 10 assists and didn't turn the ball over once in 39 minutes. Still, CJ should have held onto the ball, even if he thought that he was fouled. One look at his Facebook status is all you need to see to know just how profoundly upset CJ was after the game, but he's wrong. All the blame doesn't belong to you, CJ. Yeah, we wanted more production for the entire series, but we shouldn't have thought that your ability to fill in for D Rose in the regular season would translate to the playoffs. Still, I think CJ will be focused heading into next season.

I was also extremely critical of Rip Hamilton for most of the series, and game, for good reason. He was signed to provide additional scoring, and he wasn't doing that. On top of that, he was turning the ball over at an alarming rate. But last night, Rip was an integral part of the comeback that got the Bulls back into the game. He ended with 19 points, by far the most productive game of the playoffs for Rip. Too bad that for him, it was too little, too late.

Taj is the man. That's all that needs to be said.
The two stars of the game, though, were Deng and Gibson. As we talked about after Game 5, Luol was finally stepping into that leadership role, in the process willing the Bulls to success. It worked in Game 5, and it nearly worked last night. Deng had one of his best games of the season, with 19 points and an unbelievable 17 rebounds, to go along with 2 blocks and numerous big plays that kept the Bulls in the game. Taj was his usual self, with a nice 14 point, 5 rebound, and 2 block stat sheet that doesn't come close to explaining what he meant to this team. If I were dishing out awards for this playoff round, he'd be the most valuable player. He brought tenacity, toughness, energy, intensity, and ability to each game. The Bulls, to put it simply, were a better team with him on the court. Both he and Asik were shot blocking machines. But it was Taj who was high profile, with his nasty blocks and intensity showing up in dunks (like the one below), which largely made Boozer irrelevant as Taj played more minutes and the entire 4th quarter. No matter what, Taj can play on my team any day, all day.

Ah, Boozer. The Boozer who made $13.5 million dollars this year. I think the entire Bulls fanbase would like to thank you for your 1-11 performance with 3 points last night. Sure, Boozer was big in the previous couple games, but he was signed to be the second scoring option for Rose and to provide some balance for the Bulls' offense when it counted. No one is going to remember the production in Games 4 & 5. They'll remember the stinker that Boozer laid on the court in the decisive Game 6.

I appreciate his 13 rebounds, though, and they bring up a different point. The Bulls should have won this game and this series simply through the other things they do so well. Last night, the Bulls had 56 rebounds to Philly's 33. 15 of those rebounds were offensive, and that was without the Bulls' best rebounder on the floor. Philly only had 5 offensive rebounds the entire game. Rip Hamilton had that by himself. With all of those second chance opportunities, it's mind boggling that the Bulls didn't put up more than 78 points. The problem was, of course, offensive execution and shooting. The Bulls shot 38% last night, which I think would have been a lot better if they weren't in the midst of such a slump the whole game. They just missed Derrick. D Rose was the guy who bailed the Bulls out in these situations and created easy baskets for the team; instead, everyone here was settling for jump shots.

It's incredibly frustrating to know watch a special season unravel before your eyes. We've all watched this Bulls team grow up the past couple of years, as the team has risen to the top of the NBA and established their own unique identity. Under the stalwart leadership of Derrick Rose, we felt that this was the year. D Rose could lead this team back to a championship, one we haven't seen since Michael left in 1998. All the signs were there; at the very least a potential rematch/showdown with Miami loomed in the Eastern Conference Finals. That's why it hurt when Derrick went down. That's why it hurt when Jo went down. And that's why it was especially devastating to see the Bulls lose last night, even though as a fanbase we all knew deep down that it was bound to happen. It's because we've loved this team in a different, special way for the past two years and couldn't possibly believe that this was happening to our team. It's heartbreaking.

Imagine a second scoring option like Harden
And now what? That same team, the one we had so much high hopes for as recently as two weeks ago, now faces as uncertain a future as any team in the league. What are the Bulls going to do to address needs the team has (more like, what can they do), and what will this team even look like next year? First, the Bulls have had the need for a legitimate second scoring guard, a player who can create his own offense, since they formulated the current team as we see it now. They need a player like James Harden on Oklahoma City, a guy who takes a very good team and makes it elite when he's on the floor. Yes, OKC has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but Harden is no slouch and truly makes them close to unbeatable when he's on the court at the same time. Imagine if the Bulls had a player like him this season? Granted, it'd be much more difficult because Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are all on that team as lottery picks because the Thunder were a bad team for so long, but just imagine if the Bulls had a good second scorer. That player would have made the difference not just between a first round exit and a team still in the playoffs, but in how the Bulls would have won. With a legit second scoring guard who could create offense, the Bulls probably would have wrapped up the series earlier. Remember, Philadelphia was given this series. They didn't win it.

Here's the problem. We recognize that the Bulls need this type of player; even the team does, as they went and signed Rip Hamilton to try and fill that role. We hope that Rip could be the type of player, like Harden, that could provide the Bulls with 14-17 points per game and take pressure off Rose. The problem was that Rip couldn't stay healthy. So, barring any unforeseen rejuvenation in a player who turns 35 in the next season, this remains a need. There is just no way to address it, as the Bulls have no money within the cap heading into next year. So even if they wanted to get a player of Harden's quality to fill that void, they don't have the money to pay the type of salary that kind of player would command. And don't even think about the Bulls exercising their amnesty rights on Carlos Boozer. The Bulls signed him to play offense, and not only do they still believe he can do that, they don't want to pay him not to play just so they have cap flexibility. As a result, we're going to see largely the same Bulls team next year.

The Bulls hope to get back to 100% next year
Not that there's anything tremendously wrong with that. We love this team, and the same team back together, with Tom Thibodeau as coach, would still be a championship contender. The thing is, though, is Derrick Rose and Luol Deng's injury concerns. With Derrick, you expect his ACL rehab to carry into next season. Estimates I've heard is that he won't be ready to play until January. And who even knows what kind of player he will be when he gets back. He'll be rusty, for sure, but will we see the same explosive athletic Derrick Rose we've known since he started his career? I can't think of an athlete that will work harder in rehab than D Rose, but still, the whole history of torn ACL's illustrates that there will be at least some difference in his game. Not only does that make me sad to think about (for we all loved the hard charging, ridiculously athletic D Rose), it concerns me about the success the Bulls can have next season. When you combine that with Deng's wrist injury, there is even more concern. Deng is dead set on playing in the Olympics for Great Britain, so if he does get surgery it will be after that. This means that if surgery is required, it won't be until July at the earliest. So when would he be back and ready to go? Would he be missing a large chunk of the season as well? I think the Bulls could survive for a couple months without those two, but there is no question that the Bulls enter next season with more questions than answers.

And that's the sad part. Bulls fans foresaw a run of success for this team for the next few years at least, and all of those plans are in question now. Is the championship window for this team shut? It would be tragic beyond belief if this team's flight crashed before it even got off the ground. Of course, I still have faith that under Thibs, and with the type of veterans we have on this team, the Bulls can get it back together and get this team back on track. Still, that doesn't take away the pain of watching this season end the way it did. Seeing the confetti pour down on a team that was given the earliest of Christmas gifts to advance in the playoffs stung. We can hope and believe that the guys on this team can get us back on track, but there's no doubt now that the future is cloudy. And we have all summer to stew about it.