Shocking Bulls season ending loss part II


May 11

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In the end for the Bulls Thursday and for the 2011-12 season, it was a game they weren’t supposed to win that they left shocked they lost.

Sort of the way this whole season went.

The Bulls had lost Derrick Rose, were still without Joakim Noah, had Taj Gibson playing through a sprained ankle, saw Luol Deng leave early in the game for stitches and were facing their second straight playoff elimination game, in Philadelphia this time and trailing by a dozen points midway through the third quarter.

But with a remarkable physical effort that summarized the team in the end, more toughness and dedication than talent, the Bulls with plus-24 in second chance points, plus-33 in rebounds and plus-10 on inside points seemed to have the 76ers out: Three point lead with 38.8 seconds.

“The game was right where we wanted it to be,” said Richard Hamilton, who along with Luol Deng led the Bulls with 19 points. “I thought we had it. You couldn’t tell me we were going to lose that game. But that sums up the last month of our season right there. The game was won. You can’t ask for a better situation than that at the end, 25 seconds, up three, playing on their court. The only thing they can do is foul.”

So here’s the situation after Thaddeus Young drives and puts in a finger roll with 12.8 seconds left. No need to foul then with a three point lead. Play defense as the Bulls did in holding the 76ers below 40 percent shooting yet again, though Young scored. The 76ers won scoring 79 points for the second time in this series. The last time the 76ers won a playoff game scoring fewer than 79 points was in 1954 before the shot clock.

So game over: They’ll foul. You make free throws, right?

It was as shocking in a different way as the Bulls blowing that 12-point lead in Game 5 to Miami last season in the conference finals. But that was the conference finals and the Heat. This was just a horrid 76ers team, an eighth seed being the fifth ever to defeat a top seed, if you can call the Bulls that without Rose and Noah.

I don’t often believe Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau when he says the team has enough to win. I did for this series. Even without Rose. Or Noah.

This ending sequence will be discussed for a long time and have to raise questions about the return of C.J. Watson, whom the team has an option on for next season, even though the only other Bulls point guard is John Lucas. And Thibodeau yanked Lucas during the game for Watson after misplays. Watson did have 10 assists Thursday after a slow start. But he was two of 11 and 24 percent shooting in the series, an eventual 4-2 76ers win.

After that Young layup to bring the 76ers within 78-77 with 12.8 seconds left, the 76ers had to foul. They appeared to try and also go for a steal. But there was no call as Watson dribbled into the front court. Now the 76ers were in trouble, so the play was to keep dribbling, to dribble down the time with neither team having a timeout left or stop and get fouled and shoot free throws. Watson was second this season to Rose in free throw shooting at more than 80 percent.

Instead, Watson threw ahead to Omer Asik, the team’s poorest free throw shooter at 35 percent, and the 76ers Spencer Hawes fouled Asik. Hard. Hawes grabbed Asik around the neck in what might have been a flagrant foul. The Bulls certainly thought it was.

(See my earlier story for comments from Thibodeau and Watson about the non call and Watson’s decision making).

Omer Asik

The officials let it go as a regular foul and Asik, predictably, missed two, although he was terrific in the game and kept the Bulls in it with his defense. Asik and Hamilton had the best plus/minus stats of the game for the Bulls with the 76ers’ biggest run, 14-2 in the second quarter, when Asik was out. Luol Deng also had a terrific closing effort with 19 points and 17 rebounds.

But while Watson had a classic brain freeze, so did the defense. With Asik shooting, you figure at least one big man and maybe two stays in for the offense rebound. You get it and the game’s over. Of course, you also get the flagrant call and the game is over with free throws and possession. But both guards have to be in the backcourt with Asik shooting free throws and a one point lead. Instead, Hawes boxed Deng out and Andre Iguodala ran full court with only Asik between him and the basket.

So Asik shoots the free throw and he’s the only one back? Did he also have to drive the bus?

“I told Omer it’s not his fault,” said Gibson. “He played a great game, solid down the stretch, being real physical. We had a lot of confidence in him. We still had a shot. But we’ve got to get back on defense. We’ve got to get a stop and unfortunately we didn’t get the call we wanted.”

Asik’s foul call on Iguodala could be questioned as well, though the free throws were pretty even Thursday. Thibodeau did question the flagrant, but not the officials.

“I thought we had three great officials,” said Thibodeau, apparently not wanting to be fined until he gets an extension. “Those plays are tough. I thought there may have been a foul in the back court with (Jrue) Holiday. They were trying to take the foul. Obviously they didn’t see it that way. You are running the clock down. You can probably dribble out the clock. They got to foul. They’re out of timeouts. They have to go the length of the court. Didn’t happen. Hopefully we learn from that, but sometimes that is what happens in a game. There were a lot of other things before that that put us in the position that we were in, but I did like the fact that we fought back and we put ourselves in position to win. We didn’t do the things that were necessary in the last minute to pull off the win. Free throw, rebound, dribble the length of the floor and from my viewpoint it looked like Omer had the ball (blocked). I don’t want to put it on the officials.”

It’s not you, it’s me?

Taj Gibson

“Right now, I’m still in shock,” said Gibson. “You don’t want to go out like this. To lose like that, it sucks. Especially when it’s a physical game and it’s late. It’s playoff basketball and it sucks.

“I felt like a lot of guys stepped up and put forth a great effort and especially in the fourth quarter it was one of the best fourth quarters we had in this series, and then to lose like that, 2.2 seconds on the clock. I’m at a loss for words.”

That was one of your stealing defeat from the jaws of victory ones. And then it should have been Game 7 in the United Center, and you know this Philadelphia gang that shoots so crooked wasn’t winning that one. And then Boston doesn’t have the size and there’s creaky Kevin Garnett and maybe Joakim Noah is back for that one. He did warm up, though it seemed clear he still was limping from his sprained ankle.

“Disappointed right now,” Noah said after the game in breaking his silence since the Game 3 injury when the Bulls lost a 14-point fourth quarter lead when he went out. “It hurts. I tried everything I could (to play). It was not enough to play a basketball game.

“We fought hard,” Noah said. “It was disappointing because I knew how much we put into this. I think Omer played a great game. He works really hard. I hate to see any of my teammates down. We win together and we lose together. We learn from the experience. This one really hurts, though. The season’s over. That’s tough. We’ve got to take this summer and understand the lessons and come back strong.”

Yes, so what next?

This wasn’t in anyone’s mind even Thursday. There was an air of confidence even with the deficit. The Bulls felt they did have enough and had shown it all season when players were out. And this was going to be the season. There was the best overall record again, and this time with Rose missing 27 games. Miami wasn’t so intimidating anymore, and they had nowhere near the rebounding and size. The West was mixed and the Bulls had won relatively easily in San Antonio. No one had the depth and there was Hamilton coming back. That had to be a big improvement over Keith Bogans. It seemed everything was in place for a real championship run. This time they did believe it. It wasn’t just hopeful talk, anymore. Why Deng didn’t opt for that surgery after his wrist injury. They all felt this really was that special year. And now it’s about next so quickly and suddenly. It still seems surreal that it was just over a week ago Rose was flying through the air and on the way to a triple double and an easy first game playoff win.

The team holds options on Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, the latter playing just five minutes without a shot as Hamilton played the entire second half and Thibodeau pretty much went with seven players with Lucas getting nine minutes and seven points.

It should have worked as Thibodeau opted for the defense, and if, if, if…

If Carlos Boozer only had a better game. But he was one of 11 for three points, though he did have 13 rebounds and cover from Thibodeau.

“I thought he played hard. It wasn’t going his way offensively,” said Thibodeau. “That happens and when it is not going your way you have to do other things. I thought his rebounding was terrific. Carlos had a terrific year for us, (but) didn’t play well offensively. I thought he passed the ball well, didn’t shoot the ball well, but I thought his rebounding was excellent.”

Thibodeau did lift Boozer with 4:07 left in the third and the Bulls cutting into the 76ers’ 12-point lead and now trailing by seven. Boozer didn’t play again and the Bulls did lead 70-65 with 7:32 left. But Iguodala, who led the 76ers with 20, hit a big three to tie the game at 70 with 5:50 left, passed to Lou Williams for his three to make it 73-72 76ers with 4:01 left and got that last big rebound and made the two free throws even as he’d shot under 50 percent on fourth quarter free throws this season. Iguodala said he got a tip from teammate Tony Battie earlier in the series to relax when shooting so Iguodala says he pretends he’s talking to his son and showing him how to shoot free throws to take his mind off the pressure. Hey, he made them.

“I just missed,” said Boozer. “Some nights are like that. Some nights you are on fire. Some nights you are not. Tonight I wasn’t, but my teammates did a great job of making shots. My teammates said to stay aggressive and confident and keep shooting. They just didn’t go in.

“I feel like we should have won that game,” Boozer added. “We fought like dogs, but not to lose. Climbed all the way back. Had a one possession lead and just came up a little short. We all feel bad. We feel we should still be playing. It’s going to be a long, tough summer. But we’ll be back. This team the last two years we (just) haven’t been healthy at the right time.”

Boozer with a long contract will be back as likely will Hamilton with one season left and then a buyout in a third season. Asik is a restricted free agent and the Bulls are allowed to match offers for him. Gibson has one more season to become a free agent, but is up for an extension. Lucas and Brian Scalabrine are on minimum deals for this past season and Jimmy Butler is on his rookie contract.

Hamilton was very good, though injured much of the season. Still, he was healthy in the playoffs but only averaged 28 minutes against the 76ers.

“Twenty five seconds left, up three and losing the game. It happens,” said Hamilton. “That’s the game. It’s tricky sometimes. To win a world championship, everything has to be on the same page. I felt good. I just wanted to keep pushing. Give us the best opportunity to win and bring it back to Chicago. I thought we had it.”

So did just about everyone including a subdued home crowd until the last seconds.

Luol Deng

In some respects, Deng might be the most tradeable given his value. But he again came up big in a big game. He did say he would be playing in the Olympics and then would consider afterward whether surgery on his wrist ligament tear was necessary.

“I’m going to play the Olympics,” Deng said. “I’m excited about it, something I wanted to do since I was a kid and I’m going to prepare myself for it. I’ve got to see how my wrist feels throughout the Olympics, how it feels from now going into the Olympics and right after the Olympics, I’ll make the decision, whether my wrist is good enough that I don’t need the surgery or if I need it, so I haven’t really ruled out not getting the surgery or getting it. I just haven’t made that decision. Since I was a kid growing up, it’s something I always wanted an opportunity to be a part of and the fact that it’s in my hometown that I grew up in, in a country that gave me the opportunity to even be here. I’m looking forward to it.

“We fought hard for the game,” Deng added. “Really just came down to the last few minutes. Some calls, got to look at it again and see what happened, but overall, just played hard. Played as hard as we can.
We stayed positive, just like we’ve been all year. Kept yelling at the bench that we’re going to make our run and once we started making our run, guys saw it. Finish line was right there and we just kept going with it. We picked up our defense, our intensity was a lot better and just started playing the way we play. What really hurts about this loss was just everything that we’ve heard. That’s really what hurts more than anything. The fact that we had guys down, people doubted us and we just played hard. We wanted to show everyone that we have a team that can do it and Derrick going out, everyone counted us out. We came here, we were up and then Jo gets hurt, and then Taj playing hurt tonight. Go back to my wrist, playing with a torn ligament. I’ve never done anything like that, playing pretty much most of the season with one arm. But overall, I just thought our spirit and our belief was amazing. Every time we had somebody go down, we just looked at each other in the locker room and whoever we’ve got, we really believed we were really going to get it done, and just went out fought every night.

“We had the best record and we were going into the playoffs with the best team,” said Deng. “Unfortunately, other things happened. (Now it’s) up to Pax and Gar (GMs John Paxson and Gar Forman). I really love everyone in that locker room. I love my coaching staff. Each night, we had each other’s back. It was more than just basketball. We cared about each other. When someone was down, we picked them up. We really became a close group. You don’t really don’t have the best record in the NBA in the regular season if your team is not a close group. It just felt like that everything that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened.”

And then it happened again in the last seconds of the last playoff game of this season. There just can’t be any basketball gods given the way this season went for the Bulls. None apparently interested in fairness, anyway.

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