Joakim Noah, during Thursday's loss to the Miami Heat (Getty Images)
Without Derrick Rose, and with Luol Deng struggling to pull off double-duty on both ends of the court, of course the Chicago Bulls were going to be no match for the Miami Heat on Thursday. The Heat, even without Chris Bosh on the active roster and with Dwyane Wade starting slowly with his shooting stroke (1-6 to begin the game), absolutely loaded up defensively on the Chicago guards, forcing the team into a series of tough shots and completely overwhelming the team's offensive balance. The result was a nasty 83-72 loss.
Chicago, in the eye of this particular hurricane, doesn't seem particularly enthused about making excuses for its play. They're likely looking to a series of makeable open shots that the team clanged, or the fact that this seemed like a winnable contest for the Bulls as late as the third quarter. Maybe the team is frustrated with losing the season series (and, potentially, the tiebreaker in the race for the conference's top playoff seed) with Miami, or the fact that the team has lost two in a row.
Whatever the impetus, Chicago wasn't in much mood to talk following the loss. Normally one of the more upstanding and accessible locker rooms in the NBA, most of the Bulls weren't around to deal with the media after Miami conquered. When the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, NBA.com's Sam Smith and ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell (amongst others) entered the room, they found that most of the Bulls had just … split.
A sign of a fractured team?
A lack of moral center, basking in the glow following a win in front of the media but high-tailing under the pressure after the loss?
Off to party in Miami, taking advantage of that off day on Friday?
Nah. Nothing like that. Everyone chill out.
Joakim Noah and Rip Hamilton were around to carefully discuss where Chicago went wrong, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau appeared far from upset — "calm," even — in mulling over the physical play the Heat brought in the win. Probably because they're smarter than us, at this.
How the Chicago Bulls got to this point is nearly beyond belief. For the team to be even in competition for that top spot in the East with Derrick Rose missing 26 of the team's 63 games (and making just 29 percent of his shots in three attempts to play through injury in the entire month of April) defies logic. How this group has used spacing and high post play to peel off the NBA's sixth-ranked offense, even if they've ranked amongst the worst in the NBA offensively over the last month, is a marvel. And, thanks to the team's doggedness and a series of clang-y opponents of late, the team has vaulted back to the top of the leader board in defensive efficiency.
Again, take a bow. Especially you, Thibs.
No, the team isn't falling apart. And it isn't "unforgivably awful" and "lazy" when it loses to the Washington Wizards without Rose or Deng playing, as Michael Wilbon described. I've got news for Mike — a team relying on C.J. Watson and John Lucas III to drive an offense will routinely rank as one of the worst outfits in the NBA, almost entirely regardless of who is in the frontcourt. The Wizards are one of the worst outfits in the NBA, and they beat a Bulls team on Monday that was just about its on-paper equal. Chicago has now overreached to a point where the team's reserves have become overrated, and now way, way too much has become expected of these guys.
They're not as great as you think they are, and things aren't as presently awful as you think they are. They answer is closer to the middle.
Even if the eventual result is the same.
Last season the Bulls ended the year on a tear; in the won/loss column at least. The team finished its year by winning 21 of 23; but close observers of the squad noticed that it wasn't playing particularly well over the group's final three weeks, despite all the winning. That sort of uneasiness carried over into the playoffs, where the Bulls trudged through two tough series wins over Indiana and Atlanta before falling to the Heat. And though you can't smartly compare last year's healthy run to end the 82-game campaign with this season's injury-addled finish to a 66-game mess, you get the feeling the Bulls are feeling the same frustrations.
It's not just Rose's groin, or ankle. He also has a foot strain, apparently, and hasn't looked in rhythm since March. It's not just that Deng is playing with one working wrist, at this point, it's that he took some shots to the ribs, and he was noticeably wearing on Thursday; hounded by LeBron James defensively, while struggling to keep up with the NBA's likely MVP on the other end. With the Heat overloading on the Bulls UCLA-derived counter attacks, the team ran out of options, and was made to look like … well, especially what this Bulls team, up against Miami, should look like right now.
As a result, the team will have to work its tail off in order to hold Miami (who is one game back in the standings with four to play) from grabbing that top seed. Chicago will take on a just-as-desperate Dallas Mavericks team on Saturday, and visit the white hot Indiana Pacers (a team that absolutely cannot stand Chicago right now) before closing out the season next Thursday against Cleveland. If the team is looking for any such break before the playoffs, it's not likely to receive one. With the team most assuredly tipping off for Game 1 of their first round matchup on April 28th, this puts the tired group at four games in eight days counting today's "off day."
No, the locker room isn't fractured. They haven't stopped listening to Thibodeau, and they haven't lost the spark that created all these improbable wins. But Chicago is exactly where it should be, in this rush of a banged-up season. And that's probably a little scary to them.
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