Bulls facing Game 5 elimination game Tuesday


May 6

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

And then there was one.

Perhaps just one game left in this most remarkable and unusual — if not ultimately fulfilling — Bulls season ever. The Bulls after Sunday’s 89-82 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers trail 3-1 in the opening round playoff series. Game 5 is 8:30 p.m. CT Tuesday in Chicago.

Cue the NBA music, perhaps a dirge for the Bulls. It is now at win-or-go-home time.

“A couple of shots drop, a couple of calls and it would have been a different game,” Kyle Korver said with a sigh. “We’re not in this for moral victories. We’re trying to win championships. It’s not the way we thought the series would go a week and half ago. It’s a different situation, but that’s the way it goes. The attitude has always been that we’re going to win. We’ve been short on people all year. That’s not an excuse. I thought we’d win this game, go home 2-2. But it didn’t happen.

Kyle Korver

“We’re down two, but we’re not out,” Korver went on. “Teams have come back from 3-1 before. We’re going to have to play really well, have a lot of guys step up. We’re not going to quit. Everyone is upset, obviously. But by Tuesday night we’ll be back, have a good mindset and be ready to go.”

Reporters continued to linger, there were pauses, a question about Omer Asik starting, Joakim Noah being gone along with Derrick Rose. Finally, there was a long silence as reporters stared at Korver.

Korver shrugged and finally said, “I don’t know, man.”

Nobody really knows what to say. No one’s ever been through anything quite like this–a great, if uneven, season, the league’s best record despite numerous injuries, the regular starters playing in fewer than 10 games together. And then everything finally seemed to be coming together, when everyone was playing. But it all collapsed with the loss of Rose in Game 1 and Noah in Game 3. Both are gone for the playoffs, though the Bulls hold out hope for Noah’s sprained ankle.

Yet despite the bumps and bruises, and it continued again in Sunday’s loss with Luol Deng taking a hard fall on his injured left wrist, optimism remained. The Bulls beat the rival Heat even without Rose. They went more than a year without losing two straight. They led the league in virtually every vital statistical category or were in the top five.

They opened in Los Angeles with a dramatic win over the Lakers and displayed size and depth rare around the league. The pieces seemed in place for a legitimate title run. It wasn’t like there was anyone to fear that much. Sure, there were very good teams. But the Bulls had beaten just about all, the Spurs in San Antonio as well. Really, is that all they’ve got?

They’d had some slipups, like in Oklahoma City, but always bounced right back. And they’d have Rose healthy and Noah and Carlos Boozer was coming on and the reserves, so battle tested now, could return to their roles with the edge of having started at big times in big games.

Now, just a week into the playoffs, the Bulls linger on the verge of going home until next season. And a very uncertain one at that, with Rose and perhaps Deng not likely to open the season with the team, though there’s time to consider those possibilities.

For now, it’s as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say, one game, one play a time. Win Tuesday, try to make it 3-2 and then perhaps put some pressure on one of the worst perimeter shooting teams in the league, the 76ers, and who knows. They are certainly as bad a shooting team as I can recall outside my backyard.

The 76ers shot below 40 percent and won the last two games, shooting worse than the Bulls in both. The 76ers lost 21 of 26 during the season when being outshot. They lost 12 of 14 when shooting below 40 percent. They were the league’s worst team in close games.

Three to one down isn’t as impossible as 3-0. And the Bulls with a spirited fourth quarter after falling behind by as much as seven Sunday showed they hadn’t given up, that they still wanted to compete even if there was plenty missing. They’ll get a warm, encouraging home crowd Tuesday, and then who knows.

“They did a good job taking their home court,” said Deng, who had 11 points and five rebounds. “We get home and we’ve got to get that game and come back get the one they took for us. We still believe. We’ve just got to get that one game to get going.

“They’ve outhustled us a little bit or the ball went their way,” said Deng. “But I know we are playing hard. It’s been a tough injury year. The last week or so has been one after another. At the same time we are playing hard and we still believe even though we’ve just lost three games in a row. So now we try to get one and come back here.

“It’s going to be another of those type playoff games, fourth quarter getting stops and we’re not doing that,” said Deng.

It’s been a couple of brutal finishes in Philadelphia, the blown 14-point lead after Noah severally sprained his ankle (he was on the sideline wearing a boot Sunday) and Sunday within a point or two down to under two minutes and not being able to make the big play on either end.

It’s such a chore for the Bulls to score now. With Asik starting, the 76ers laid off into the lane and closed it down. So the Bulls shot jumpers early, they mostly missed and they were down 24-15 after one on 28 percent shooting. The 76ers never are much better and invent the oddest shots. Evan Turner dribbles around way too much and Andre Iguodala settles for long, arcing bombs that almost dent the backboard.

Taj Gibson

The Bulls finally went to Gibson, who is one of the rare players against the 76ers who gives the Bulls an athletic matchup advantage as Gibson outworked Thaddeus Young and had 10 straight Bulls points to get the Bulls within 31-30.

Jrue Holiday continued to chase either Hamilton or Korver, and given neither is a post up type player who can beat you off the dribble they weren’t able to take advantage of Holiday’s slight build. Turner muscled Watson until Watson finally got going after halftime, though he shot too much. John Lucas III did try to move the ball and find the right shooters in the right places, but it was mostly in the first half as the Bulls were within 44-42 at halftime after Hawes ended it with a three on a nice called inbounds play.

But the Bulls were beginning to look like they could muscle this thing enough with 63 percent shooting in the second quarter behind Gibson.

The Bulls did have a nice run to open up a 56-50 lead early in the third with Boozer hitting jumpers and both Deng and Watson adding threes. But the 76ers got back with a few jumpers. Hamilton couldn’t get anything going and Thibodeau left him out the rest of the way after one of four shooting in the third. The 76ers reclaimed the lead late in the quarter with a pair of fast break scores after a Watson airball and Deng missing a tip as he went for the offensive rebound and no one covered back for him again.

It was 64-63 76ers after three, and then it seemed to be getting away from the Bulls again in the fourth after Boozer caught a Korver airball and laid it in. The 76ers continued to go at the rim. The Bulls were playing good defense, but offensively they were mostly going with a Watson/Boozer pick and roll. They’d gotten the 76ers into the penalty with almost seven minutes left but weren’t taking enough advantage and kicked the ball around some and had a pair stripped by the active 76ers’ players’ hands.

Holiday then hit those two unlikely threes, at least the way he was shooting to put the 76ers ahead 80-73 with 3:34 left.

Boozer, who led the Bulls with 23 points and 11 rebounds but had five turnovers, then made a big three point play and Watson, who had gone six straight quarters without scoring until the second half, hit a jumper to bring the Bulls within two with 2:41 left after two big Holiday threes.

Holiday was five of 20 at the time. The 76ers’ three top guards finished 12 for 45. And, yes, they won.

“I look at our shooting and we were four for 25, I think, at halftime from Lou [Williams], Jrue, and Evan [Turner], and we were up two. And so that was pretty amazing. Spencer [Hawes, 22 on nine of 11 shooting after 10 in the fourth quarter in Game 3 once Noah went out] hit a big shot going into half for us. He’s been playing incredible. But the guy I’m really proud of today is Jrue Holiday. He’s got a coach who’s got no conscience when it comes to shooting, and it’s the one thing I’ve tried to impart with our team is, if you’ve got a shot, you’ve got to take it. Jrue was zero for the world and hit two huge threes to give us a little bit of a cushion. Don’t fear the consequences. We always talk about, if you miss, you miss.”

But even with those two, one defended well by Gibson, the Bulls still had a shot. Watson, who had been awful for six quarters, made another jumper after a Hawes dunk, and then in the big sequence Boozer rolled in and missed and appeared to be hit.

“It was a key sequence,” Thibodeau conceded, not wanting to question the officiating as he is on his rookie contract.

“It kind of went against us,” he added.

“It was a great pocket pass by C.J.,” said Boozer. “I was trying to go to the hole strong. Obviously, I wanted a layup or dunk. I thought I had some contact. I thought I got fouled, to be frank. The fouls they were calling on the other side, I thought that call could’ve been made. But they didn’t call it. We just kept playing on.”

There was some disagreement as some neutral observers felt it was a good block first before Boozer was hit. Then going back the other way Watson was called for a foul on seemingly limited contact. There perhaps was contact. But there had to be on Boozer’s, you figure. Sort of call it the same way both sides. Though Boozer insisted the officiating didn’t cost the Bulls the game.

“It was our fault we lost the game,” said Boozer. “We gave up 25 points in the fourth quarter. That’s too many points. We lost because we didn’t contain their guards in the fourth quarter. Even today with all the things going against us, slow start, shots not going in, not getting calls we thought we should get, we still felt like we could have and should have won the game.”

The Bulls have been right there, and, sure a few plays here and there. They didn’t give up or give in without Rose and Noah, and it has to be difficult not to. But it’s also not the same team, and not just because they are missing their best scorer and passer, their best rebounder and interior playmakers, the two guys who stand tallest at the toughest times.

It’s not to suggest others didn’t try, but you do detect a difference. Like when your big brother isn’t there, or maybe when he is. You feel a little more confident, a little more self assured, a bit more of a strut than a struggle. The Bulls don’t seem to have that as much now as they search for scoring, hope for someone to make a big play. The guys they have make the effort.

But it’s not just what the guys who are missing do but who they are and where they have been. Rose played for nothing but championships in high school and college. Noah won a pair in college. Yes, Richard Hamilton did with the Pistons, but he’s been more sometime player and again sat out the fourth quarter for all but a few seconds after playing big minutes in Game 3.

Carlos Boozer

Boozer did have a good game, though Deng was in and out again after another tough fall on his bad wrist. Anyway, he’s not the type of player you call on to bail you out when the offense is awry. He never has been.

Gibson came up big with 10 straight second quarter points to enable the Bulls to recover from a poor, quick jump shooting first quarter. But he’s been a reserve as has been Watson and John Lucas, the latter running the offense well early but then pulled quickly after a few early fourth quarter miscues.

I was talking to a longtime NBA veteran executive watching the Bulls lately and he said this series proved to him Rose had been the best player in the league. No offense, he insisted, but look how much he did for that team when it mattered. And how much more he meant to them when things didn’t go well.

You can nit pick and second guess things, and I was surprised to see so much two man game with Boozer and Watson in the fourth quarter, the duo taking 11 of the 17 shots. Korver played more than 11 minutes and got two shots. Deng had one. They stood on the weak side and mostly watched in an unusually stagnant Bulls offense without as much weak side action as we’re used to seeing. Again, we didn’t see Mike James as Thibodeau said he’s confident with his rotation. Perhaps the Bulls could have tried some zone given how badly the 76ers shoot, but how much worse than their 39 percent could they have been?

A guy who’s shooting 25 percent hits a pair of threes. The 76ers pull away in the fourth shooting 37.5 percent.

Yes, there’s been an incredible free throw discrepancy in the series. The 76ers have had at least 30 free throws in three of the four games. Part of that is their guards dribble around way too much into the lane. The 76ers have made 84 free throws in this series and the Bulls have attempted 79 (the 76ers have attempted 110).

“Be more aggressive,” said Gibson. “The calls are going to go whatever way. It depends on how aggressive you are on defense and how you are going to play. The calls depend on how hard you what it. We have to set the tone early.”

The 76ers attempted 30 free throws in just four of 66 games this season and overall averaged 18.2 per game, almost the fewest in NBA history.

But free throw shooting also is about aggression and officials are human. If they don’t see one team as aggressive, they’re going to penalize them. There is a difference between working hard and being self assured when you are. The Bulls seem to lack a bit of that latter trait, though who could blame them given this past week of season catastrophe?

“We did not have one of our emotional leaders, but Jo was on the sidelines,” said Gibson. “Guys have to step up. We’ve been in this situation before. Nobody on this team has their head down. Everyone understands what has to be done. There are so many things you can point to that have happened and give yourself an excuse. We have to go out and do our jobs, take responsibility and get the job done.

“It’s tough, but we still have more ball to play,” said Gibson. “We’re going back home. Look, we worked hard all year long. The situation now is tough. But we got ourselves in this situation. We can’t blame anyone else. So we have to go out and continue to keep fighting.

“And when it comes down to who wants it more we have to want it a little more,” said Gibson. “We have to show more will and more toughness. The 76ers are a tough team. It came down to will and they showed that have the toughness and will to overcome. Next time it’s got to be us. Go back home, play hard and get a win.”

Well said, if not done nearly as well done of late. No one can blame them now, especially after what has occurred. Sometimes you try as hard as you can and there is something missing in you. Sometimes you want to go on but if you feel it’s not leading anywhere can you be the same fighter?

“We’re fighting, but we can do better,” said Thibodeau. “We can do a lot better. In the end it comes down to will, to making a play, three stops in a row, whatever you may need to get done. Mental toughness and physical toughness. One thing our team has is we have great character and I think the fight will be there.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below: