I'll say this about the Wizards: they've found a way to rip out our collective hearts and stomp on our collective throats so convincingly in crunchtime during the first two games of this series that the overarching takeaway seems to be a defeated admission that, yes, maybe Washington is just the better team. Almost everyone picked the Bulls in this series before it started, but the reasons seemed to be more based on intangibles than any hard logic. The Bulls had experience, the Bulls had toughness, the Bulls had The Will To Win and the Bulls had Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau against the team that had Randy Wittman and didn't have Joakim Noah. I'll be honest: I was buying in.
It's taken only two games to blow all of that up. Washington has jumped out to huge, double-digit leads in both games this series and then put Chicago's offense in a straightjacket late in the fourth quarter. They've done it in a way that doesn't appear to be a fluke. Wittman has made a few crucial adjustments as well, most notably pressuring Noah when he tries to facilitate from the elbow and swapping Trevor Ariza onto D.J. Augustin in crunchtime of Game 2. Maybe the Wizards aren't as incompetent as we thought.
With Nene healthy and engaged, the Bulls face a tall order. Washington has a major edge in size, talent and athleticism in the backcourt with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Trevor Ariza is outplaying Jimmy Butler. Nene and Marcin Gortat have gotten the best of the Bulls' lauded frontcourt. The Wizards have a complete set of starters -- five good players who compliment each other well. Basketball isn't that hard. With a balanced lineup and a coach who seems to be pulling the right strings, of course they're going to be playing well against an opponent as fatally flawed as our Bulls.
So, are the Bulls cooked? Is it time to shift the conversation around the team to how this loss will affect their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony? Should we be ready to talk about how this season and this series will affect Jimmy Butler's early extension and what to do with those two first round draft picks?
Well, not yet. There's plenty of time for that, and those will be the major points of discussion whenever this season ends. We should know better than to shut the door on the Bulls before the casket is officially closed. Remember all of the reasons the Bulls were picked to win this series in the first place? Silly as they were, all of them are still on the table. It wouldn't be a very Bulls thing to do to coast to an easy victory in a playoff series. They couldn't do it even with Derrick Rose at the height of his powers -- I can point you to some discussion threads at this website during the 2011 playoffs against the Pacers and Hawks that resemble a mental ward.
It was never going to be easy. Losing the first two home games makes a tough task even more daunting. That said, the Bulls can still win this series. It shouldn't surprise anyone if they take both games in Washington.
It starts tonight, where D.C. will surely be rocking for its first home playoff game in six years. The Bulls are going to need to overcome that atmosphere, but preparation has never been a problem for a Tom Thibodeau team. The Bulls truly have their backs against the wall now and know Game 3 is very much one they have to win. I don't expect to see another 15-point deficit in the first half.
Three days of rest should be big for Chicago. Jimmy Butler needed it. D.J. needed it. Noah and Taj did, too. The Bulls have looked downright tired in late game situations during this series, perhaps a symptom of the Every Game Is Game 7 mantra Thibodeau holds dear. Burnout in the workplace is real and the Bulls might be dealing with some, but this isn't the time to check out mentally. Everything we know about this team would lead us to believe they won't be finished without a good fight.
Tonight, I'm looking at Noah. Forget banal descriptors like "heart and soul of the team"; Noah is much more than that. This season, Noah ascended to become one of the top 15 or 20 best players in the league, at least in my biased opinion. He needs to be the best player in this series going forward, just as he was last year against the Nets. He hasn't been the est player in the series thus far, and that's been one major problem for the Bulls. If anyone has it in them to make this team rise from the dead, it's Joakim. Game 3 is his opportunity.
I'm looking at how the Bulls use Augustin, too, particularly in crunchtime. The Bulls seem determined to move him off the ball in the fourth quarter, but I don't think that's the right look. Let D.J. run the point. Get Dunleavy in there instead of Hinrich. Space out Washington and give Noah room to operate in the high post. Let Taj eat offensive rebounds for dinner. Stop putting Jimmy Butler in position to take threes. Let him run the baseline, set screens and make cuts towards the rim.
It all sounds simple enough from the comfort of my living room six hours before game time. We know it won't be once the game tips. The first two games of this series have been dog fights the Bulls have lost at the end because they forgot how to execute offensively. They easily could have won both.
Washington might be the better team, and if that's the case, the Bulls simply tip their caps and move on to next season. I'm ready to admit that yet, though. I don't think Thibs, Jo, Taj and Jimmy are, either.