It wasn't supposed to end like this. The team with the heart, hustle and muscle got outhearted (don't think that's a real word), outhustled and outmuscled in a dreadful 75-69 Game 5 loss against the Wizards at the United Center that has the Bulls "Gone Fishin'" at least a few weeks earlier than most expected:
I was in the building last night, and let me tell you, those last few minutes of the fourth quarter were some of the most excruciating I've ever witnessed in person. After D.J. Augustin cut the Bulls' deficit to three with just over two minutes left, this happened:
- The Bulls gave up three offensive rebounds on one possession (thanks, Carlos Boozer) before a Bradley Beal turnover, which chopped about a minute-and-a-half off the game clock
- Boozer got his shot blocked at the rim
- The Wizards committed a shot-clock violation
- Jimmy Butler missed the 358953457th layup of the game
- Andre Miller missed two free throws, only for Nene to get an offensive rebound. Beal split a pair of free throws, only for Nene to get an offensive rebound. John Wall made two free throws, sealing the Bulls' fate.
- Joakim Noah, who dragged ass around the court with a knee injury for most of the second half, committed a turnover to end the season.
As galling as the Wizards' own incompetence was in closing this game out, the Bulls were somehow even worse. Watching the Wizards get offensive rebound after offensive rebound after offensive rebound after offensive rebound after offensive rebound was absolutely surreal. But I guess that's what happens when your center is playing his 42nd and 43rd minutes on one leg and the other big man on the court, who was only playing because of a brutal injury to Taj Gibson, has one foot out the door. Things were so bad I gave Kirk Hinrich a somewhat substantial ovation after he fouled out simply because he was one of the few Bulls to actually play decently well on the night.
I guess that's also what can happen when a team goes full bore over the last few months of the season to achieve the best regular-season record possible. Many of us worried about the use of "playoff rotations" throughout the latter half of the year, wondering if that would come back to bite the Bulls in the rear end. We questioned whether the Bulls had that extra gear. It was apparent that they didn't, and even Tom Thibodeau admitted after the game that "there was nothing left."
Of course, one could argue that even if the Bulls "had something left," it wouldn't have mattered. The Wizards have their own problems, but it's pretty clear that they were the more talented team, and I admit I underestimated them. John Wall's shot selection leaves quite a bit to be desired, but he generally controlled the series at the point. Beal was awesome, leaving me to yearn for a player of his ilk. Trevor Ariza was a killer for most of the series. Marcin Gortat often has issues simply hanging on to the ball and bricked quite a few layups, but he made plenty of other key contributions. Nene ate up Noah, and while Jo's injury may have had something to do with that, I don't want to take too much away from Nene. The guy was a monster and was huge in Game 5 after sitting out Game 4 because he was a dope for fighting Butler. In addition to the starters, the Wizards got some nice contributions from the bench, notably Miller, Trevor Booker and Martell Webster.
I thought the Bulls would be able to survive despite the talent gap because of how they thrived during the second half of the season. Hard work, defense, timely offense and coaching would propel them to at least the second round. But the normally stingy Bulls' defense wasn't up to snuff, they were uncharacteristically beat to numerous loose balls and the timely offense was essentially nowhere to be found outside of some big Butler threes in Game 3. As for the coaching, this wasn't Thibodeau's finest hour, and his insistence on sticking with Boozer in the starting lineup even when things were dire is something that confounded even Wizards fans. And I must give some credit to the oft-maligned Randy Wittman for making some key adjustments that helped the Wizards win.
Now that I think more about it, perhaps this was a fitting way for this Derrick Rose-less and Luol Deng-less season to end. The try super hard team that relies on a center to play point guard and a retread to carry the team offensively bows out in the first round because the offense sucks, guys are hurt and there's nothing left in the tank. Yeah, perhaps we should have seen this coming given the roster construction, but these guys played SO well in 2014 that it really had me thinking they could make a deep playoff run. I've told myself before that I wouldn't get fooled again by regular-season success. I got fooled again.
However, I don't want to take too much away from what the team accomplished this year. After Rose went down again and the team looked dead in the water, I had my sights set on the lottery. But the team never quit, and they were able to provide some truly memorable moments. Watching Noah and Gibson grow was a lot of fun. Augustin's regular-season renaissance was a lot of fun. Even if getting to 48 wins may have sapped the Bulls of their energy for the postseason, just getting to that number was pretty remarkable given the woeful start.
But now I'm looking toward the future, and I'm ready for some changes. We've made fun of the #2014Plan for several years on this site, but this truly is a key offseason for this franchise. As the Bulls FO likes to say, they have "flexibility." They can amnesty Boozer. They own the rights to Nikola Mirotic and two first-rounders. They can and should make a play for Carmelo Anthony. There are options here, and it'll be interesting to see how things play out.
Whatever route the Bulls choose, acquiring more offense is sure to be the name of the game. Obviously a healthy Derrick Rose will help things, but there are still so many questions surrounding his future. And even if Rose comes back close to his MVP self, it's clear the Bulls still need more offensive weapons. Sign offense, trade for offense, draft offense...whatever. Defensive-minded guys are great and all, but Thibodeau could probably teach a chair to play defense. Just get some guys who can put the ball in the damn basket.