It only took five possessions for reality to set in for the Chicago Bulls in Game 4. It started with a missed three-pointer on a broken possession from Kirk Hinrich to open the game. Next, Joakim Noah threw a bad pass that was stolen by Bradley Beal and converted into fast break points for the Wizards. Hinrich missed another jumper, Jimmy Butler missed a long two-pointer and Carlos Boozer was called for traveling.
Just like that, the Wizards were up 9-0 in a game the Bulls had to have to save their season. This was not how things were supposed to go, not for a Bulls team so full of heart, one distinct mostly for playing with a level of intensity and preparation that's meant to prevent a start like this from ever happening.
The truth is that the beginning of Game 4 was nothing more than a recurring nightmare the Bulls have gotten very familiar with in this series. The Bulls found themselves down 13 points in Game 1 and 17 points in Game 2 during the first quarter. Maybe that should have comforted Tom Thibodeau's team when Washington's lead grew to 14-0 before Butler finally hit a shot to get the Bulls on the board, but it was the context of Game 4 that changed everything.
Nene's suspension was supposed to give Chicago the break they needed to get back in this series. The desperation that comes from facing a 3-1 deficit in a best of seven series was supposed to mean Chicago wasn't going to have to dig out of another huge hole right out of the gates. The familiarity Thibodeau gained in seeing these Wizards three times was supposed to usher in the coaching advantage everyone thought the Bulls had before the games actually began.
The Bulls would get back into the game, mostly thanks to the work of action film star Taj Gibson, but they were never really in it. It highlighted a reality that's been developing throughout the series: the Wizards are out-playing and out-coaching the Bulls right now. If it doesn't change immediately, Chicago's season will be over Tuesday at the United Center in Game 5.
There's too many things going wrong to fully place on the blame on one or two individuals. It starts with the defense, because it always starts with the defense for a Thibodeau team. The Bulls finished with the No. 2 defense in the NBA and were the best in the league by a decent margin after the All-Star Game. That same defense has yielded 107.9 points per 100 possessions through four games in this series, a number that would rank third worst in the NBA during the regular season.
There's been defensive breakdowns everywhere, and the Bulls have been unable to adjust to them. It's not as easy as it sounds because the Wizards have found a way of constantly keeping the Bulls on their toes. In Game 4, it was all about Trevor Ariza. He came out draining three-pointers on his way to a 30-point night, which included 6-of-10 shooting from deep. Earlier in this series, it was Nene or Beal. What's becoming apparent is that there's no Reggie Evans or Gerald Wallace on the floor for Washington in this series like there was a year ago when the Bulls beat the Nets in seven games. The Wizards have too many options. The Bulls just aren't able to defend all of them.
It places a spotlight on Thibodeau, because he's the mastermind behind the scheme and because he was supposed to be one of two irresistible forces the Wizards couldn't handle in this series. Instead of acting as the Bulls trump card, Thibodeau has fallen victim to his biggest flaws -- namely, inflexibility. It's been spelled out most clearly in the Bulls' rotations.
The Bulls have to be the only team in the league that doesn't start its second and third best players. Having D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson on the bench is a big reason why Chicago keeps falling into these big holes, and Thibodeau's refusal to insert them in the game earlier in the first and third quarters has been too much for the Bulls to overcome. It was particularly egregious in the case of Gibson during Game 4. Taj was the only player who could get anything going for the Bulls on Sunday, but he still only played 32 minutes.
Fact is, Kirk Hinrich and Carlos Boozer have given the Bulls nothing in this series. I still think the Bulls would have won Game 2 had they just let Mike Dunleavy close the game instead of Hinrich. The Bulls immediately blew a seven-point lead and could not score from the moment Hinrich entered in Game 2. It's because he murders everything the Bulls are capable of doing offensively.
Hinrich is shooting 37.8 percent this series from the field and 21.4 percent from three. What's making it even worse is he's taking three more shots per game than he did in the regular season. There's no reason Kirk Hinrich should ever be taking over 11 shots per game, not in 2014 and not when he's going entire quarters without being able to hit anything. When he's in the game, it just kills the Bulls spacing. Washington knows they don't need to defend Hinrich from the perimeter because he can't make a jump shot. In turn, they pack the paint and double down the guys driving to the hoop or cutting through the lane.
If we're being honest, Noah's play has been an issue, too. We championed him as one of the best players in the league after his breakout season this year, but he hasn't been the best player in the series for any of the four games. He's never even been particularly close. Credit Randy Wittman for pressuring Noah when he's got the ball in the high post or on the wing -- it's disrupted his floor vision and passing lanes, and has thrown a huge wrench into the Chicago offense. The Bulls were able to manufacture some semblance of offense without Rose this year because Noah was so good at finding cutters and facilitating open looks for teammates. As that aspect of the offense has dried up, so too as Chicago's ability to score.
Really, there were only two differences in Game 3 that saved this from being the sweep the Bulls probably deserve. It was a) Dunleavy hitting eight (8!) three-pointers and b) Jimmy Butler and Dunleavy making threes to stop the bleeding after Washington went on the type of fourth quarter run that marred the first two games of this series.
Shout-out to the Heat-Bobcats series, because otherwise Bulls-Wizards would be the least competitive matchup of an otherwise wonderful first round of the playoffs. The Bulls just aren't good enough on either side of the ball right now to keep up. They might win Game 5 because they're at home, but I'm not particularly confident. It's ending for this team, and the next step involves Nikola Mirotic or Carmelo Anthony or something else to shake things up.
The Bulls just aren't good enough. Sometimes the playoffs are that easy.