Bulls conclude one of best seasons in franchise history


Apr 27

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Saturday at noon in the United Center for the Bulls begins what they’ve been waiting for, the 2012 playoffs with the Bulls hosting the No. 8 seeded Philadelphia 76ers, the team with the poorest record in these NBA playoffs.

But before beginning what the Bulls believe can be another march to an NBA championship—really, they do—it’s worth taking some time to savor what has been one of the best and perhaps most remarkable seasons in franchise history with Thursday’s closing 107-75 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Bulls never trailed after the first quarter on the way to leading by more than 20 most of the fourth quarter and it ended with Brian Scalabrine hitting a 22-footer from the left elbow. Scalabrine, the fan favorite who addressed the crowd before and after the game, noted his was from the same spot where Michael Jordan’s hit his dramatic winner in the 1998 finale in Salt Lake City. Scalabrine said he didn’t plan on it being his last shot, either, as the mood remained optimistic after the longest short season in NBA history.

“We had a terrific season,” said John Lucas III, who led the Bulls with 25 points as the reserves combined for 65 points. “You always want to finish strong. Our coaching staff and organization put a core group together one through 14 who can flat out play. Everyone has confidence.”

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau held out Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver for, he assured everyone, merely precautionary reasons. Thibodeau said Rose was good after playing in Indiana Wednesday and had a long shooting drill before the game. But the team decided rest was better with the playoffs beginning so quickly. Similarly with Deng. So Rose finished the regular season missing 27 games and Deng missing 12. Richard Hamilton had 10 points in just over 19 minutes as he’s come on stronger to end the season after missing 38 games. But Hamilton is the only regular with a championship, and he believes this Bulls team has a good chance.

“In order to win you have to be mentally tough,” agreed Hamilton, who started for the 2004 champion Pistons. “That’s the key thing. You can play a team seven times one series. You get to know everything about them. But I think guys in here are mentally strong. You see how this season went. We play Miami with everyone out and our bench goes out and wins it. You have to be mentally strong to win those types of games. I think we’re there. But we have to do it. We can say how good our chances are, but you have to do it and the way is to play.”

But this is the best chance for a Bulls team to reach that ultimate goal since the last great Jordan Bulls team in 1998. The competition is not transcendent with the Bulls having had success against Miami and no clear favorite in the Western Conference. The Bulls with the best record and tiebreaker with San Antonio, which also was 50-16, will have home court advantage in every playoff series.

And that’s because of a truly remarkable season.

So it was appropriate, perhaps, that Lucas tied a career high in points Thursday and the bench players, the hard working symbol of this Bulls team, once again carried the day in the often overlooked Bulls recipe for success of rebounding, defense and depth when the star isn’t available.

The reigning league MVP Rose, perhaps a more important player to the Bulls than any other individual player to his team because of the lack of another dominant player, missed more than 40 percent of the team’s games. Yet, the Bulls by a slight percentage point had a better record in the shortened 66-game season than last season when the Bulls were 62-20.

The Bulls winning percentage this season was 75.7 percent compared to 75.6 percent last season.

This season also ranked as the fourth best in winning percentage in franchise history behind only 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1991-92. Three times when the Bulls won championships they had a lower regular season winning percentage. And never when the Bulls won a championship did they have as many injuries.

In fact, in the six championship seasons combined, Jordan missed a total of six games. Scottie Pippen missed just one game in the first three championship seasons combined and then five combined in 1996 and 1997 before missing the first part of the final championship season after surgery.

So the Bulls lose the league MVP for almost half the season. The second best player and only other All Star, Deng, misses a dozen games, which was more than Jordan and Pippen combined in the first three championship seasons together. The Bulls let go their starting shooting guard who played all 82 games last season, Keith Bogans, for Hamilton. But with groin and shoulder injuries, Hamilton missed 58 percent of the games. Rose’s backup Watson missed 18 games with a variety of ankle problems.

Yet, even deep reserves guys like Lucas, whom many didn’t believe should be in the NBA and played just 10 minutes all of last season, step in and have big roles in even big games like against the Heat. Watson and Brewer started 68 games combined. The Bulls had 10 different players start games. The regular starting lineup played just 15 games together.

Yet, the Bulls led the league in fewest points allowed, biggest winning margin, rebounding and second chance points. They set a franchise record for opponent scoring. The Bulls also were in the top five in opponent field goal percentage, blocks, opponents’ three point shooting and assists.

And yet this was done with a cast of players rejected and released by other teams, like Brewer, Watson, Kyle Korver and Lucas. There were low first round picks like Taj Gibson and second rounders like Omer Asik. The guy who was considered most likely to be injured, Carlos Boozer, who never played a complete season before, became Cal Ripkin and didn’t miss a game.

It was a true team and a team you could be proud of for its relentless effort, will and consistency, especially in a very difficult season with fewer days off and more travel and back to back game situations.

“Our team responded to every challenge they had,” said Thibodeau. “We still have a long way to go. This is what you play for, to try to build all the right habits to give yourself the best chance possible to win in the playoffs. So we are looking for the next challenge. We got everyone back (for the playoffs). I think a lot of guys were able to contribute. Everybody at a different point in the season helped us to achieve what we did.”

It was a remarkable season in many respects, and, as Thibodeau said, because the Bulls had so many contributions, like:

— Rose, who did average a team high 21.8 points and 7.9 assists. He was brilliant early with that game saver to beat the Lakers in the Christmas Day opening game, had a game winner against the Bucks, was voted a starter for the All Star game and had 17 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to win in Atlanta.

— Deng, who was Thibodeau’s most reliable as he was among the league leaders in minutes played all season. He had a game winning tipin against the Raptors, hit a game winner to beat Atlanta in the game Rose had 17 in the fourth and stole a pass from Kobe Bryant and blocked his late shot to seal that Christmas Day win.

— Noah, who had 22 double-doubles and had a triple-double against the Bucks as he became one of the team’s most important passers and averaged more than 2.5 per game, most among the big men, and was 10th in the league in rebounding.

— Hamilton, who closed the season well with back to back 22-point games and shot a solid 38 percent on threes.

— Boozer, who was the ironman. He had 18 double-doubles and came on strong in March with games of at least 24 against Orlando twice, Portland and Utah. He also was in the top 20 in the league in rebounding.

— Gibson, who was the best defensive player off the bench, was in the top 25 in the league in blocks along with Noah and had a big 15 and 13 game against the Knicks.

— Asik, who despite limited play was 30th in the league in blocks and was by far the team’s leader and one of the league’s leaders in offensive rebounds per minute played.

— Brewer, who filled in with 43 starts after supposedly being a reserve and added a pair of 17-point games with constant hustling efforts.

— Korver, who again was one of the league’s top three point shooters at 43.5 percent, three times hitting five in a game and showing much improved defense. He also twice had 18-point games and 20 against the Pacers.

— Watson, who stepped in for Rose regularly with a half dozen games of at least 20 points, barely missing being the sixth Bulls player to average in double figures and twice leading the team in scoring against the 76ers.

— Lucas, with that big 16-point game to beat Miami when Rose was out along with another 25-pointer earlier in the season.

— And enthusiastic support whenever needed from Brian Scalabrine and Mike James.

And now the 76ers become the first step for the Bulls in what they hope will be a worthy quest.

In many respects, the Bulls feel more confident not only given the experience of last year’s playoffs, but that they have more scoring this season to support Rose. Rose’s health with being out so long with five different injuries will, of course, be a question. But the Bulls say they are confident as he continues to play he’ll improve and be close to the player he’s been.

“The biggest difference was last year we had guys up front coming off injury,” said Thibodeau about Noah and Boozer hurt last season. “ Our guys up front, they have been healthy all year. The injuries this year have been to the guys in the backcourt. The bench was great all season long. I think Derrick has been feeling better than he has in a long time, which is a big plus and Rip has gotten his legs under him. We just have to be ready to go. It’s different this season from the standpoint from last year, the way we were constructed and because of our injuries. The big thing with Joakim is that he was a different player after being out so long (last season). He could never really find his rhythm or his stamina after his injury. Joakim is obviously scoring better this year. We have a lot more scoring this year. Last year, with Derrick, we had to really rely heavily on his scoring to give ourselves a good chance to win. This year Derrick does not have to score like that. We have a number of guys who can score the ball. It is a more balanced attack, having six guys who can score in double figures helps you a lot.

“The thing about Derrick he is going to give you whatever you need,” added Thibodeau. “If you need more scoring, he will score. If you need playmaking, he gives you playmaking. He is still the strength of our team and in the playoffs it comes down to playing to your strengths. He is obviously in the forefront to that. We have to play to his strengths and that is one of the things we are going to do.”

And the Bulls are confident they’ll get that.

“I think (we’re better prepared),” said Boozer. “We’re healthy going in this year. Last year, we weren’t. We have the experience we went through last year. We’ve been able to gel with (Rose) coming back and surrounded him with a lot of talent and players who can score the ball. He’s not 100 percent, but he’s going to play with everything he has and that’s a lot better than other guys. We’ll take it.”

And so it begins in less than two days after that long offseason when it looked like there was not even going to be a season to the rush through these 66 games, the injuries which never seemed to stop while the team never much wavered and seems ready for a strong playoffs.

“We’ve been waiting all year for this,” said Hamilton. “We’ve positioned ourselves well to be the No. 1 seed. Now it’s out job to go out and play.”

After what we’ve seen all season, nobody will expect anything less.

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