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This 2013-14 Bulls season that ended Tuesday night in the United Center in a 75-69 loss to the Washington Wizards — the third straight Bulls home loss in this 4-1 Wizards’ playoff win — probably couldn’t have ended any other way.
The overachieving, hard working, never-give-up band had Joakim Noah limping through 43 minutes on a swollen knee and Taj Gibson nursing a severely sprained ankle in the locker room the last 7:51. The Bulls had turned a nine-point fourth quarter deficit in another brutal and ineffectual shooting night into a bare 72-69 Washington lead with 2:18 left.
And this was the Wizards team the Bulls thought they’d see, John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as they’ve played, running away from shots, shot clock violations, stepping out of bounds with the ball, missing two straight free throws.
It was right there despite the ineptitude of the Bulls offense.
Steal a win in Chicago, and then put this inexperienced Wizards team which hadn’t been in the playoffs for six years in the playoff pressure cooker and ready to burst. Having to win at home or face a Game 7 in Chicago.
But with Gibson watching from the locker room, Noah unable to get much lift, the guards pretty much winded and Carlos Boozer in for a rare fourth quarter appearance, the Wizards got an astounding seven offensive rebounds in the last two minutes, most by Marcin Gortat against Boozer but the last by Nene over Noah. And even as the Wizards could only make three of six free throws in that two-minute stretch and missed all their field goals and committed two turnovers, the Bulls were shut out; the last indignity being Jimmy Butler on an inbounds play with 18.8 seconds left and trailing by three missing a point blank layup, one of 16 mostly uncontested layups the Bulls missed in the game.
And so this feel-very-good season for all the Bulls did after losing Derrick Rose to another knee injury after 10 games and seeing Luol Deng traded in January comes crashing to a stop in five playoff games.
“You take off the top player on any team, I don’t care, it’s a tough blow,” said Noah, who limped and dragged to six points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks. “We had to deal with that two years in a row. Going through that this team never gave up. And that’s something I’m proud of. Through all the adversity we never gave up. We lose in the first round; it is what it is. This is who we are.”
Yes, you are what your record says you are, as Bill Parcells famously noted.
And the Bulls are a first round playoff team and no more.
Though favored because they had the home court advantage and 48 wins to 44 for Washington, they were less a favorite given the circumstances. Nene, who was the star of the series and had 20 points back from suspension Tuesday, returned in full health after missing 29 games this season. The young Wizards with Wall scoring 24 points and Beal adding 17 were at their fittest and best.
Because the Wizards were inconsistent all season, losing down the stretch after big leads nearly a dozen times, the consensus was the Bulls veteran savvy, experience and relentless physical play would be too much. But in Nene and Gortat the Wizards could match the Bulls up front (Washington outrebounded the Bulls by 10 in the series and by six in Game 5), and in Wall and Beal the Wizards had young, high lottery pick stars. The Bulls’ was still in rehabilitation.
So the Bulls had to give everything they had for as long as they could to be where they were.
“Those first two games we lost (blowing double digit second half leads at home) we felt we should have won, took a lot of energy and emotion out of us,” said D.J. Augustin, who was one of 10 in Game 5 and struggled after a strong Game 1. “But we still kept fighting; we fought to then end, but we didn’t have a enough. A lot of people counted us out; a lot of people didn’t even think we’d be in the playoffs. Yet a number four seed and we could have been number three. I think it was a great season for us and we have a lot to build on going into next season.”
In a sense, the Bulls had to play like they did to get not only where they were but in position for a home court advantage to have a playoff possibility.
There’s always this notion that the Bulls play hard all season and other teams don’t and then they turn up their games and the Bulls cannot any more than they have. That’s a fallacy. The playoffs is about talent more than the regular season. In the regular season, if you are well prepared and efficient and relentless and compete like the Bulls do, then you can steal a few wins another team might not get. Not because they aren’t trying; you are just better prepared, which is a strength of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
But in the playoffs with no back to back games and extensive scouting by everyone, talent generally wins out unless there are fluke wins. There weren’t in this series, and the Bulls let their chances go availing when they failed to close those first two games at home.
“Disappointed, that’s the word,” said Mike Dunleavy. “Felt like we could have given a better performance. In terms of competitiveness of the series they beat us; they deserved to win the series. Disappointing the way we played at home. At the end of the day, it was a rewarding season and we’ll keep our heads high. You sit back and think about it, we’ll appreciate the season we had with all the turmoil.
“Overall,” said Dunleavy, “we had a good year all things considered but a disappointing ending. It was kind of the message for this evening. We hate that tomorrow we’ll be coming in to meet and not be worried about our opponent. It (the close) symbolized the way this series went; we just could not secure an offensive rebound. Lot of tipouts, lot of loose balls. That was kind of the crowning blow to our season. We’ve been a good rebounding team all season long. To not get rebounds is shocking to me. But they’re big and tough inside and they made more plays than we did.”
It was in the end perhaps appropriate as the Bulls battled and clawed and tried, but there was nothing left. Dunleavy with his sprained thumb from Game 4 had five points. Gibson, the Bulls star of Game 4 with 32 points, left with 12 and three blocks. The team doctors spent as much time in the post game locker room examining players as the media was asking questions.
It all perhaps was symbolic of a grueling, often uplifting but inexorable season.