The handwriting seems to be on the wall: It is almost incredulous to think this Bulls season could be tarnished by such a gloomy and crippling conclusion. Of course, the season isn’t technically over; each round of the NBA playoffs is a best of seven-game series. But after enduring a pair of beatings in Philadelphia over the weekend, the Bulls are left chasing the 76ers, who now lead the series, 3 – 1.
Game 3's defensive battle was leaning toward the Bulls Friday night until Bulls center, Joakim Noah, ran the length of the court—right into 76ers guard Andre Iguodala’s foot. Noah rolled his ankle and went down in pain but he tried to stay in the game. But the injury was too severe and the heart of the Bulls team flat lined. Even with a 14-point lead, the Bulls melted in the final quarter and lost. Noah arrived at Game 4 in street clothes on Sunday to watch his undermanned teammates lose, 89-82. The 76ers still need one more win to close out the first round of their Eastern Conference playoff. But the odds of a Bulls comeback are so very slim with two of its stars not on the court.
But this year was quite different. The 2011-2012 schedule was delayed by the NBA lockout—players had to work out on their own and teams were unable to make any player transactions. Once a settlement was reached, a flurry of activity unfolded and an abbreviated schedule was crammed into the league’s calendar. The Bulls would play 16 games in 24 days: 10 on the road and most back-to-back—and there was even a back-to-back-to-back. Few anticipated the toll the schedule would take on players’ bodies. Bulls General Manager Gar Forman spent much of the offseason addressing a preexisting weakness, the shooting guard position. He inked a two-year deal with an aging-yet-productive player, former Detroit Piston, Richard “Rip” Hamilton.
After four games, Hamilton was sidelined with a groin problem; he returned against his former team, the Pistons, only to re-injure himself, then returned and suffered a shoulder injury—a vicious cycle for the veteran. Between injuries, Ronnie Brewer was inserted into the starting line-up where he has done a nice job filling in for Rip.
Hamilton wasn’t the only Bull spending time on the trainer’s table. Rose’s injury issues would start with his toe; yet even with the MVP temporarily out of commission, the team remained productive. Rose’s return was met with back spasms that would again sideline him. Guards C.J. Watson and John Lucas III picked up the slack; but Watson would also sustain an elbow injury. The pattern seemed to be set: players would go down and others would come in to get the job done. Veteran guard Mike James was signed and released so many times, he must have stayed at the airport waiting for the phone to ring. Forward Luol Deng tore the ligament in his left wrist in late January and most expected him to be finished and opt for surgery. He doesn’t; instead, Deng sat out six games and returned, in pain, and played anyway. The Sudan native and Rose went on to represent the Bulls in the All-Star game, coached by Thibodeau.
The rest of the season, for Rose, was speckled by a groin injury, an ankle sprain and a foot injury. Yet, in spite of the bumps, bruises and tough schedule, the Bulls piled up the wins, tying the San Antonio Spurs for the league’s best regular season record. The accomplishment earned the team the top seed in the East. But if the last two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that everything is different in the playoffs.
For 46-plus minutes in Game 1 at United Center the place was rocking; Rose was in the midst of a triumphant return and the home team was up by nine. All was right in the world for Bulls fans: You could tell Rose wanted to show he was back. He attacked the basket as he had always done—with power and determination. Then, the inexplicable happened. Rose went up and crashed to the floor; something was terribly wrong. He held his left knee and everyone in the building knew it was bad. His older brother, Reggie, was sitting just a few feet away watching Derrick, writhing in pain. There was an air of deep sadness and loss as Rose was helped off the court—and the faces of everyone in the organization showed it. It was a Bulls win with a bigger loss: Rose had torn his ACL and now faces surgery and a long recovery. Questions abound for the team and its head coach: why was he still in the game, what do the Bulls do now, can they succeed in the playoffs without Rose?
There is no right answer about Rose being in the game at the time, other NBA coaches agree with Thibodeau. The damage is done, Rose is out and there is still a series to be played.
The emotions of Game 2 were overwhelming. Sure the Bulls had played without Rose during the regular season but this was very different, this was the NBA playoffs—you need your star players; you need your closer. The only appearance Rose made was when he limped out to the middle of the court to ceremonially hand over the game ball to the officials for the opening tip. Later, members of the team told me it was painful to watch—and to be reminded of his absence leading the team. The game reflected that sentiment: the defense was lacking and the 76ers sensed a down team and were able to capture the victory.
And now, with Noah sidelined, Tom Thibodeau’s mantra, “We have enough to win,” seems rather hollow. Clearly, they don’t have enough to win.
The Bulls have returned home to play what could be their final game of the season on Tuesday night. They may pull out one more game but the odds of winning the series are decidedly stacked: No Rose, no Noah, no hope.
Was it the truncated season? Or perhaps a coach who rode his team too hard? Are there deficiencies on the roster—or was it just horrible luck?
The handwriting on the wall may well become graffiti from Bulls fans when this season comes to a painfully sad end.