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Steve Aschburner

Derrick Rose shouldered arguably the biggest load in the NBA -- and maybe it took its toll in the East finals.
Derrick Rose shouldered arguably the biggest load in the NBA -- and maybe it took its toll in the East finals.
Mike Ehrmann/NBAE/Getty Images

Lack of secondary scorer finally caught up with Bulls

Posted May 27 2011 7:31AM

CHICAGO -- Snatched.

The game. The series. The season.

When everything that the Chicago Bulls accomplished in 2010-11 ended, it ended fast. A flurry of Miami Heat talent, scoring and supremacy turned a certain Bulls victory inside-out, sticking Chicago with a head-spinning, knee-buckling 83-80 loss and elimination from the Eastern Conference finals.

One man's rally is another man's collapse, and that's how the Bulls were feeling after Miami outscored them 18-3 over the final 3:14 of Game 5 Thursday night at United Center. This was Dallas over Oklahoma City in Game 4, trauma on hardwood, without even the chance to play 48 more minutes in 48 more hours to move on mentally.

"A loss is a loss, but really, we had that game," forward Luol Deng said. "We outplayed them the whole game except the last three minutes or so. The whole 45 minutes, we played as hard as we can. The whole series -- we played hard every game. We just didn't close them out."

Story of their postseason, slide show of their demise. This was a 77-65 lead -- click! -- a four-point play by Dwyane Wade -- click! -- LeBron James with a three from the left side, 79-79-- click! -- James from the key -- click! -- Derrick Rose missing the second of two free throws -- click! -- Rose snuffed in the left corner by James on Chicago's last chance.

The slide show of the Bulls' season, start to finish, would take a little longer and be crammed with a lot more highlights than the bitter end of Game 5. In no particular order: Rose's precocious MVP chatter in October to making it a reality by April. Tom Thibodeau grinding and wonking his way from career-assistant status to a Coach of the Year award.

A team that went 41-41 for two straight seasons morphing with a roster overhaul and development from within into the league's top seed overall with 62 victories. A stifling defense that fit the city and its sports lore, Monsters of the Midway stuff at the Madhouse on Madison.

A team in the truest sense -- deep, with clearly defined roles, no overlap, one All-Star and complementary teammates and a unity as tough to penetrate as their interior defense. As in, for example, no one selling out the pricey power forward when he came up small in the postseason again and again. And again.

Chicago used the 82-game schedule the way a young, newly formed team should: poking at its strengths, learning its limitations, building bonds and finding chemistry. It coped with and steered almost casually around injuries and through the Thibodeau grind-and-brainwashing experience. What the Heat did in sputtering early, stiffening later, Chicago did in its own less publicized way.

"I felt we learned a lot," forward Taj Gibson said. "I felt like we were learning throughout the whole regular season. We had so many different injuries and different guys stepping up. In the postseason, we were trying to figure out how teams were going to go after us, being the overall [top] seed.

"As the playoffs went on, we got better and better, and we grew. It's just a tough one right now. It just feels like it hasn't really hit you yet, that you're on vacation now."

Said Chicago center Joakim Noah: "It hurts. I love my teammates. ... It definitely makes you want more. It hurts right now because we had our chances. It was something special, we had it."

They had it -- and they let it slip away. Or let it get snatched, the other side of the same coin. The Bulls' trouble in closing out games against Miami was smoke from a larger fire, a reminder of how limited their offense was with no reliable secondary scorer to help out Rose.

The regular season never fully exposed that flaw but it was there, enough that Chicago looked hard at a couple of possible February fixes -- Courtney Lee, Jason Richardson -- before sticking with the ones that brung 'em. Deng, Carlos Boozer (the aforementioned power forward), Kyle Korver and others took their turns, had their moments.

But having no other player who could create off the dribble or consistently make opponents pay for crowding around Rose caught up to the Bulls in the playoffs. So, too, did the sheer length of Rose's and their season, 99 games on top of a busy world-championships summer for a strong but slender 22-year-old who shouldered arguably the biggest load in the NBA.

When Boozer's biceps deflated, when Korver wound up with only warning-track power, when Noah regressed as a scoring option, there was no one else to whom Chicago and Rose could turn. There were, of course, plenty trying to get him to say just that afterward.

Asked if he felt he needed more help -- a Wade to his James or vice versa -- Rose demurred. "It is what it is," he said. "At the end, I told you, it's on me. Everything is on me. Turnovers, missed shots, fouls. If anything, learn from it. that's all I can do right now. The series is over with."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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