The Chicago Bulls aren’t ones to rest on their laurels, both coaching staff and locker room influence won’t allow for that, but it is worth noting that Chicago never was supposed to be playing an important game on May 4. This is a team that very few (mostly locals) had pegged to win more than 45 games even with the assumption that Derrick Rose would return sometime in late winter or early spring (in Chicago, it’s hard to tell the two apart). Rose sat out the entire season, though. All-Star center Joakim Noah has been playing on one wheel since January, and all manner of injury and now illness have hit these Bulls like a Tom Boerwinkle-sized punch to the gut.
And yet, here they are. Suiting up for one more try to overcome it all. Different day, different starting lineup, different “it all” left to overcome.
Chicago should be the massive underdog for Saturday night’s Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the better team entering this series, they’ve played Chicago to three close losses prior to Chicago losing Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng, and they’ve done well to grow and adjust against a Bulls team that seemed to have every answer for its $83 million-offense. Not only has talent on paper resulted in three strong wins against Chicago, but these Nets have earned their Game 7 opportunity. You may not respect some of the shot-taking decisions these Nets make, or the way the team was put together, but Brooklyn hasn’t backed into this.
Still, you can’t scout for the ridiculous. And as crazy a notion as it seems, the Bulls could actually take Game 7. They could play beyond May 4. They could fool us. Again.
Mainly because this team never fools itself. This is not a roster that should have won 48 games in 88 tries, counting the playoffs. The Bulls understand that they can’t afford to take a possession off defensively, and that it has to work extra harder to earn good looks on the other end. That’s not just physical effort – driving faster or jumping higher – either. It’s the patience and persistence that goes into understanding that three passes after the pass you just made or screen you just set this possession could result in a Carlos Boozer look around the basket, or a Marco Belinelli three-pointer from the corner.
Early work for an eventual payoff, something that teams with isolation stars (like Brooklyn right now, or the Bulls with Rose in the past) rarely have to fret about.
This is why Thursday’s Game 6 was so frustrating. Boozer had those looks around the basket. Belinelli led the team in scoring and played very well in the start, but he also missed six of nine three-pointers, mostly on good and open looks from the corner. Even with Rose, Luol Deng, and Kirk Hinrich out (with Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson badly under the weather, alongside the usual nagging ailments), the team had several attempts to tie or take the lead in the Nets win. Even with stacked odds, Brooklyn couldn’t pull away, and yet the Bulls still fell short.
A loss like that would tend to dispirit most teams. And though nobody has confused Chicago for a championship contender this season, the Bulls aren’t most teams.
This isn’t to say that won’t be blown out in Game 7. Either the overwhelming disadvantage in talent or the sheer despondency for the way the season has wrung itself out all over the floor could get to the Bulls. A combination of both could lead to a safe Nets victory. And yet, even in a season devoid of extremes (remember, Chicago has yet to put together either a four-game winning or losing streak in 2012-13), Chicago still manages to surprise. They’re still chock full of “I can’t believe these guys”-moments. They take after their coach, they take after their city, and they keep after it. Incessantly.
Will that be enough? Is there enough on this team to cover five Nets at a time, with Brooklyn’s game-ending lineups that feature scorers all adept at brushing off the pressure and stepping into a makeable 15-footer?
Only Game 7 knows. That’s what’s so damn great about these things.