April 23, 2010
He didn't seem so important, entering Thursday's Game 3, matched up against the similarly anonymous Anthony Parker(notes). But Kirk Hinrich's(notes) hot shooting and game-changing turn as Chicago's man on the outside showcased just how pivotal a figure the seventh-year guard is. As Hinrich goes, so go the Bulls. And the Bulls went 2-1 on the Cavs with a win, mainly because Hinrich couldn't miss.
It was a spectacular display. Only clanging three shots in 12 attempts, Hinrich worked off the ball and swung into open areas effortlessly. The hybrid guard made all four of his 3-point attempts, all while crashing the boards (five rebounds) and finding the open man (five assists). Without prodding, he was referred to as the "X-factor" by four different Bulls and Cavaliers following the game.
Hinrich needed a bit of prodding after the game. He seemed his old self, unimpressed with the attention, feigning an incredulous tone any time a writer tried to insinuate that Thursday's game was any different than any one of his 556 games as a Bull. And that's probably how he has to steel himself. That's likely what keeps him grounded.
Because Kirk's been around, without leaving the same place. He's never played for another team despite over a half-decade's worth of trade rumors, but you'll have a hard time finding another player in this league that has dealt with as much upheaval as Kirk Hinrich.
Entering the league as an ostensible replacement for the injured Jay Williams(notes) in 2003, the coach's son walked right into one of the strangest outfits this league had to offer. The Bulls were pegged as an up and comer in his rookie year, based on the supposed veteran leadership of one Jalen Rose(notes) and a twin towers approach featuring Tyson Chandler(notes) and Eddy Curry(notes). Hinrich missed the first five games of that season after a bout of food poisoning, and even though his debut came just two weeks into the season, the up and coming Bulls had more or less devolved into yet another mess on Madison Street.
A coaching change and roster reset allowed for Hinrich to work as the team's pivotal player in his second year. Though Curry and Chandler were still around, Hinrich had a serious cadre of vets to play alongside, as new coach Scott Skiles led the surprising Bulls to 47 wins in 2004-05, even after an 0-9 start to the season. The 2005-06 season saw another playoff appearance, and 2006-07 allowed Hinrich a career year (16.6 points, 6.3 assists).
Career seasons come with attention, though, and a bout of trade rumoring before 2007-08 (would Hinrich be involved in a package that would bring Kobe Bryant(notes) to Chicago? did Bryant demand that Hinrich be on any Bulls team he was traded to?) more or less sunk the Bulls before they even had a chance to sail. Skiles flamed out, and by the time last season started, Hinrich was playing for his fifth coach in five years while having to move off the ball because of Derrick Rose's(notes) presence.
And, really, things haven't been the same. He's had some solid shooting nights and his defense remains as stout as ever, but Hinrich's effectiveness severely tails off when he has to play off the ball. And though he won't admit to it, confidence is a huge issue with the Kansas product.
Luckily for the Bulls, Hinrich entered Game 3 thinking of himself as a pivotal piece, and he was quite correct in that regard.
Kirk was "looking to be more aggressive," and while an attitude adjustment in Chicago's simplistic offense is often enough to make a change, the difference in Hinrich's game went well beyond that. His shooting form returned. Hinrich extended well and put his elbow under the ball, improving on the crescent moon style that plagued him in Games 1 and 2, two contests that saw him shoot a combined 6-18.
Hinrich felt that he "wasn't asserting himself" in the first two games of this series, and credited his teammates for getting him good looks in Game 3, but the fact remains that he had plenty of sound looks at the hoop from just as far away in his first two turns. For whatever reason, the shooting form improved markedly in Game 3, and despite all the talk of "trying to be more assertive," sometimes an elbow under the ball and a pair of squared shoulders are all you need.
Now, the 6 for 18 - to hear Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro tell it - wasn't too much of a worry.
"Kirk does a lot of things for us," he said after Game 3. "Stats, for me, can be overblown, but Kirk does a lot of things in terms of intangibles. Kirk has been as consistent a player as we've had in terms of leadership."
And that consistency would help, I suppose, if Hinrich weren't taking up so many of Chicago's possessions, missing two-thirds of his shots along the way. Hinrich himself admitted that he outright "hadn't contributed" in the first two games of the series, and he'd be right in that regard. Good intentions and sound (if ineffective) defense only go so far.
You can't help but admire Hinrich's resolve, though, even as he clangs away. No player in this league has seen as much roster changeover as Hinrich since 2003, and he's remained a Bull despite consistent trade rumors that have plagued him (quite literally) since that bout of food poisoning. As it stands now, he's had to move to a position that clearly doesn't suit him, working off the ball, forced into taking shots he's not especially accurate with in an offense that doesn't really play to his strengths.
This is the norm, though, for the coach's kid. Though his orthodox basketball upbringing barely prepared him for twin towers, GMs assaulting coaches, four-guard lineups and trade rumors involving the self-styled next Michael Jordan, Hinrich has soldiered on.
And as he goes, so go the Bulls. With the sound defense perking up his terrible offensive stats, Hinrich has been rather average this season, and Chicago's 41-41 record comes as a result. His 27 points on 12 shots on Thursday? It aided Chicago in taking down the team with the best record in the NBA. These aren't co-incidences.
Kirk won't have any of it. He's looking forward to Game 4 at this point, probably wondering and worrying about what new soap opera this franchise has in store for him. You find it hard to blame the guy.