The Bulls couldn't avoid it, really, not after the way they've racked up victories without the youngest MVP in league history for close to two full seasons, not with how they beat the Nets in the playoffs a year ago when half the team was battling something close to the Bubonic Plague, not with the way they've overcome so much else, like the Luol Deng trade, to finish in the top half of the conference. Listen to Tom Thibodeau speak in cliches often enough and you actually start to believe them -- that playing every possession with playoff intensity gives the Bulls a tangible edge, that there really is enough talent to win with here as long as that talent pursues perfection for every damn second of the game clock.
This is how the Bulls became captive to their own narrative heading into the playoffs, how they became The Team No One Wants to Play to the point where it sure seemed like Brooklyn lost its last regular season game on purpose to avoid Thibodeau's bunch. A lot of people believed it as the Bulls headed into these playoffs, and it's hard to find fault in that. The nice thing about sports is that the conjecture can only last for so long. Eventually you have to play the games.
This is where the Bulls have fallen apart -- the games -- in a way so familiar it barely even feels surprising. You can talk about heart, grit, intensity and focus, but none of those things ever helped anyone make a three-pointer. With miss after miss in crunchtime over the first two games of their first round series against the Washington Wizards, the real issues that have plagued this team the entire season have bubbled to the surface.
The postseason is about proving your strengths are greater than your flaws, and it's a battle the Bulls have lost now twice in a row as this seven-game series heads back to Washington. Hardly anyone picked the Wizards in this series, but you can see that John Wall and Bradley Beal and Nene already believe. They know there's more to the Bulls than the media-created narrative. They know their opponent has some very real flaws they can emphasize.
Game 2 was a lot like Game 1 in the worst possible ways. The Bulls got down 17 points early this time around (it was a mere 13 points in Game 1) before starting a comeback that capitalized on every one of the platitudes we want to believe. The Bulls were winning with hustle -- offensive rebound after offensive rebound, fighting for 50/50 balls, playing stout defense when they needed to. The Bulls outscored the Wizards 26-14 in the third quarter to take a five-point lead into the fourth, where the lead would get as high as 10 points.
Just when you wanted to accept the hackneyed phrases as truth, the bottom fell out. The Bulls reverted back to this eminently flawed group we always knew they were. The offense got tight, no one could make a shot and suddenly that unnerving feeling in the pit of your stomach was back again. The Bulls couldn't score to save their life, which was very much on the line when faced with losing both home games in a series like this one.
The Bulls are down 0-2 now. They aren't out yet, but it's hard to be optimistic. The stats paint a picture as ugly as the game tape, highlighting just how bad the Bulls have been at both ends of the court.
- The Bulls have a defensive rating of 108.7 in the first two games of this series. That would have been the third worst in the league behind the Bucks and 76ers during the regular season.
- The Bulls just cannot shoot. They're 10-for-37 from three-point territory. 27 percent is not going to get it done.
- It's not just threes. The advanced box score on NBA.com shows that the Bulls are missing open two-pointers, too. In Game 2, Chicago shot only 12-of-30 (40 percent) on uncontested field goals for the night. The Wizards, meanwhile, shot 55 percent on 43 uncontested attempts. So not only are the Bulls giving up way more open looks than their opponent, they also can't connect on whatever opportunities they're getting.
What makes this even more disheartening is that Washington tried as best they could to blow this game at certain points. As Matt noted, the Wizards went 5-of-16 from the foul line in the second half while turning the ball over seven times. The Bulls are supposed to make them pay on something like that, but they don't have the opportunity to when the wheels fall off their own crunchtime offense in such significant fashion.
Taj Gibson's dunk was the Bulls first field goal in 8:07.— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) April 23, 2014
It all started with 5:39 remaining in the fourth quarter when Kirk Hinrich subbed in for Mike Dunleavy. Hinrich had actually been playing a relatively strong two-way game up to that point, but his presence just murdered the Bulls offense. It allowed Trevor Ariza to start guarding D.J. Augustin, and that was trouble.
Augustin had been carrying the Bulls' offense with fantastic shot-making but the length of Ariza gave him fits. The Bulls moved Augustin off the ball to try to get him more promising looks, but the Wizards defense was too keyed in on him and he just seemed too tired. Everyone was. It would catch up with them.
Notice how much focus the Wizards have on Augustin on two critical late game possessions with the score tied at 91.
The awful late game offense was a symptom of another thing that has bothered the Bulls throughout the series: they just can't get into their sets soon enough. By the time D.J. kicks it out to Hinrich here, there's only six seconds left on the shot clock. He needs to shoot it, and we know a three-pointer from Hinrich is not an ideal possession at this point in the game. Clank. Taj Gibson got the rebound like the warrior he is, and the Bulls restarted.
It led to this:
Gibson would get another offensive rebound, but it led to that jump ball call we're still probably all upset over.
The point is that Augustin couldn't find room to operate, not when Jimmy Butler and Hinrich were throwing their own personal brick parades. The Wizards were happy to surrender those open looks from the perimeter if it meant everyone could key in on D.J., and why not. The Bulls have lost their shooting touch at the least opportune time.
Players and coaches don't like talking about must-win games, but Game 3 is one, obviously. All the Bulls can ask for is the opportunity to tie the series before it heads back to Chicago. All they need is a chance. Right now, that chance is being overpowered by stagnation and the type of omnipresent offensive rut we've seen far too many times. The playoffs are proving the Bulls are a flawed team, and there's no amount of heart of that's going to fix that.