History not on Bulls’ side for long run


May 5

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How could this happen?

How after a second straight Bulls best record in the NBA could first Derrick Rose go out in the first game of the playoffs, and Joakim Noah, certainly for the rest of this series with the Philadelphia 76ers, in the third game?

So the Bulls, the No. 1 seeded team going into the playoffs, suddenly are the underdogs in this first round series. They’d become the fifth ever top seed to lose in the first round.

“We’re fine,” Luol Deng said after a morning team meeting Saturday. “We’ve been through a lot all year. We’ve got guys who have been through a lot. You just fight your way out of it. Just keep playing. Definitely (we have the fight left). It’s the playoffs. There’s still a lot more basketball left to be played.”

At least two games, and for the Bulls so extend that and perhaps even survive Deng will have to do more than his five points in Game 3 and average of 10 points and 7.3 rebounds thus far.

Deng is having his own injury issues with the torn ligament in his left wrist. He deserves credit for playing through it when many players would have opted for surgery. Of course, you don’t know then what you know now. Deng, like most of the Bulls players, felt this could be a special season and didn’t want to sit out. If he had, he would have been ready for next season. Now there’s a chance he misses part of it with possible surgery after playing in the Olympics.

Plus, Deng is not a take charge, go to scorer, which is the larger problem for the Bulls now. The offense revolved around Rose. The Bulls felt they could overcome his loss for a reasonable playoff run with their edge in front court depth and size and the extended bench.

But now with Noah out, that means Omer Asik perhaps starts. It also means Taj Gibson fills in at center as well and the front line rotation shrinks. Now, players accustomed to limited roles have to play more minutes at more positions.

“Even if we’ve got one guy left, we’re fine,” insisted Deng. “It’s a series. They’ve got the momentum right now, but we’ve got guys who play hard. One guy out, the next guy steps in. We’ll be fine. We’ve got guys playing with a lot of injuries. Jo tried to give it a go to see where it’s at. You could see it. He was having a hard time. You can see today he’s on crutches. We don’t know what his status is, but most likely he won’t be able to go.

“We had the game,” noted Deng. “We have to recognize everyone’s strength at the end of the game and try to get the shots. We’ve just got to play the same way we did. We just have to finish the game. We feel we played a good game until the last five minutes or so. We were up by seven. We’ve got to take care of the game.”

That is what the Bulls are relying on now. They did impose their will and their game on the 76ers with a 14-point fourth quarter lead. They slowed the pace and kept the poor shooting 76ers in the halfcourt. They did a good job closing down the paint and forcing the 76ers, poor shooters anyway, into contested jump shot. They kept the 76ers out of transition.

Through three quarters, the Bulls led by nine, the 76ers were shooting 30 percent, the Bulls were plus-11 in rebounds, had 20 assists to just eight for the 76ers and even led in fast break points.

Of course, Noah was a big part of that making Spencer Hawes look so bad and frightened around the rim he was lustily booed and taken out in the third quarter. With Noah out most of the fourth with the sprained ankle, Hawes had 10 points, though mostly on jump shots.

There were the questions about why the more active Taj Gibson wasn’t in there after Noah went out. But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said he was seeing the Bulls having trouble scoring and wanted to pair Asik for defense with Carlos Boozer for offense.

“We were trying to get more scoring onto the floor,” said Thibodeau. “Rip (Hamilton) had been playing a lot. I also thought Carlos was playing very well. Omer, he’s better offensively than he’s given credit for because of his offensive rebounding and his screening. He’s also a very underrated passer. He’s not accustomed to playing the starters’ minutes. So there will be a little bit of an adjustment. Taj has played a lot (of center). Carlos, we can extend his minutes some, and we the ability to have Luol at the four also.”

Thibodeau said whether Asik starts for Noah remains a game time decision.

So the Bulls don’t have reason to give in. The 76ers are not a very good team. They shoot poorly and don’t rebound well. The Bulls still could control the boards. C.J. Watson can’t be worse, but neither can Elton Brand, who also was scoreless in Game 3. The Bulls have the size to still control the lane on defense and enough to physically overpower the 76ers front court.

Scoring will be an issue for both teams in another game that might be enough to win with 80 points. The Bulls have to find more quick catch and shoot opportunities for Kyle Korver and Hamilton, though the 76ers will be looking for that without Rose and Noah. Boozer started strong with a dozen in the first half. But the Bulls tend to forget about him, especially when John Lucas III plays, and Boozer got his two third quarter attempts. Then in the fourth as the Bulls became desperate to score, Boozer got more shots. But they were in bad places for him, too far from the basket for long jump shots. They’ve got to get him back in more pick and roll, though Lucas and Watson don’t do that as well and Noah was the best big man passer and worked well with Boozer.

“We’ve got to try to get out into the open floor and get some easy baskets,” said Thibodeau. “That’s where he’s (Deng) most dangerous. And we’ve got to continue to keep the ball moving.

“I thought the ball movement was pretty good,” Thibodeau said. “Obviously, we did not make shots down the stretch. That’s something we have to do better. We need easy baskets. We’ve got to get out in transition. We’ve got different units playing together now, so we’ve got to move that along quickly.

“There were a lot of good things in that game, up 14 in the fourth. We were up seven with four minutes to go,” noted Thibodeau. “We didn’t close it out the way we would have liked. We’ve got to come back with more determination tomorrow. Injuries are part of the game. We have more than enough to win with. We have good quality depth. We’re down 2-1 in this series. We’ve got to find a way to win tomorrow.”

That would make it 2-2 with home court advantage returning to the Bulls, and there’s no reason to think now even without Rose and Noah this can’t be a seven game series. Take out Rose and Noah and that’s about the talent level of the 76ers, who went into the last road trip of the season having to win four on the road to make the playoffs. And they did. It’s a fragile team as well.

It was a team a week ago expected to go quietly in four or five games, which makes certainly makes this a potential asterisk championship. The Bulls did have a chance, after all.

I can’t recall this sort of thing happening so early in the playoffs, which is what truly makes the cascade of injuries to the Bulls key players unusual. Not for a top seeded team.

Among the four No. 1 seeds to be upset by No. 8 seeds, only the Spurs last season with losing Manu Ginobili and then losing to the Memphis Grizzlies were truly knocked out by injuries. The other top seeds to go out were the Supersonics in 1994 to the Nuggets, the Heat in 1999 to the Knicks and the Mavericks in 2007 to the Warriors.

The closest I recall to the Bulls situation was the 1989 Lakers, who swept the first three rounds of the playoffs and were 11-0. Then Byron Scott and Magic Johnson went out and the Lakers were swept by the Pistons in the Finals. But at least they got there.

The season before, the Pistons were on the verge of the title when Isiah Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in the playoffs. Thomas played one of the most remarkable games with a 25-point third quarter in Game 6, though the Pistons would lose the series.

The controversy there was a questionable foul call against Bill Laimbeer that enabled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win Game 6 with two free throws. But given Laimbeer pushed everyone in the back for more than a decade, I went with the call as appropriate.

There was the famous 76ers’ Moses Malone Fo, Fo, Fo, 12-1 playoff run that concluded with the sweep of the Lakers when James Worthy, Bob McAdoo and Mitch Kupchak all were hurt.

There was Bill Russell’s injury in Game 3 of the 1958 Finals that knocked Russell out the rest of the series. The St. Louis Hawks went on to win the title and break up what could have been 10 straight titles for the Celtics.

There was John Havlicek’s injury in the 1973 playoffs that knocked out the 68-win Celtics and enabled the Knicks to win their second and final NBA championship.

It happened late in the season, but the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977-78 were on the way to being one of the best teams ever at 50-10 after winning the 1977 title when Bill Walton suffered his stress fracture that ruined his career and Portland went out early in the playoffs. Similarly for the Spurs after winning the lockout 1999 title. Tim Duncan was hurt the next season and missed the playoffs and the Spurs were ousted in the first round after a 53-29 season.

One of the most star crossed franchises in the 1960’s was the Lakers with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West constantly losing in the Finals. The lost in the Finals eight times between 1959 and 1970 without a win. After the Lakers won the West in 1965, Elgin Baylor got hurt in the opening minutes of Game 1 of the playoffs. The Lakers would go onto the Finals and lose to the Celtics. And then in 1971, Baylor’s career ended with another knee injury and Jerry West was hurt after the Lakers won the West and they lost in the Western Conference playoffs to the eventual champion Bucks.

In recent years, there was Chris Webber’s torn knee cartilage in the 2003 playoffs the season after the excruciating Kings loss go the Lakers and Dirk Nowitzki hurt in the same playoffs, enabling the Spurs to advance to a title.

So, yes, these things do happen, though when they do it is almost impossible to fully recover. But the games go on and who knows who is the next one to be hurt and maybe you take them by surprise.

“You deal with injuries,” said Thibodeau. “Next guy has a chance to rise up, and that’s the way we have to look at it. That’s the challenge we all face right now. We have an opportunity to rise. Obviously, there’s always disappointment when you lose. The big thing is how we respond, to have the determination tomorrow to get the job done. I want us to have greater fight.”

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