Posted May 11 2012 10:38AM
PHILADELPHIA -- Heartbreaking at the start, cruel at the end, with not nearly enough in the middle.
What had been a hurried-up NBA regular season led directly and stunningly into this don't-blink postseason for the Chicago Bulls, and when it was over the only parts that seemed to endure at all were the two really bad instances that bookended their first-round series against Philadelphia and doomed the league's No. 1 seed.
We're talking super slo-mo Ohhhhhh, nooooooo! nightmare moments, stretched out to last little eternities. From the postseason's very first game when Derrick Rose went down -- and out for what figures to be a nervously long time -- to the final few seconds of Game 6 Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.
The first threw shackles on Chicago's playoff hopes, the big plan tearing along with Rose's anterior cruciate ligament in the 47th minute of Game 1. It hurt like hell, because Rose and the Bulls had spent most of that game finding themselves, flaking off rust, taking stock and seeing the vision. Maybe, went the thinking early in Game 1, they could pull it off after all -- survive the injuries of the previous 66 games and find a way to win that opener and 15 more by the end of June.
Yeah, well, it didn't quite work that way, did it?
"What really hurts about this [series] loss is the fact that everything we've heard," forward Luol Deng said. "That we had guys down, people doubted us. We just played hard in order to show everyone that we had a team that could do it. ... Every time we had someone go down, we just looked at each other in the locker room. And with whoever we got, we really believed we were going to get it done."
The second big downer came at the bitter end Thursday, after the Bulls and Sixers had ground against each other until there were no timeouts left and hardly any time. Omer Asik's dunk with 25.9 seconds left had put Chicago up 78-75 but was matched by Thaddeus Young's driving finger roll at 12.8 seconds, getting Philly within one. That's when C.J. Watson pushed the ball hard, so hard that Jrue Holiday couldn't catch and foul him. Watson headed toward the basket, got big man Spencer Hawes to commit and fed the ball to Asik.
Uh oh. Hawes collared Asik (flagrantly, several Bulls said afterward, though it wasn't called that way) with 7.0 seconds left. The backup big man was a 45.6 percent free throw shooter during the season. He had made 4-of-5 so far Thursday. He would make no more.
Andre Iguodala grabbed the second miss, made a beeline up the middle of the court and got fouled by Asik in frantic retreat (this time, the Bulls saw a defender going straight up, properly protecting). With 2.2 seconds left, Iguodala's first foul shot tied it. His second sent Philadelphia into the playoffs' second round for the first time since 2003. It made the Sixers only the fifth No. 8 seed to topple a No. 1 since the 16-team format began in 1984. It sent a jolt through the folks at the Wells Fargo Center, now prepping for a best-of-seven clash with rival Boston, and tapped yet another vein in Doug Collins, allowing the Philly coach to bleed emotions all over another postgame presser.
Mostly what Iguodala's second free throw did, though, was put the Bulls out of their misery. And send them into uncertainty.
This quick exit, more lost season than failure, was not what they had signed up for. The Bulls had heard and basically concurred with the widely held view that it would be them and Miami in the Eastern Conference finals and they believed they had enough this time -- a better Rose, a cagey Richard Hamilton, a still-formidable frontcourt and the hard lessons learned from last spring's five-game elimination by the Heat.
Then Rose got hurt and, in Game 3, Joakim Noah followed, landing sideways on his left ankle. It was a simpatico injury, in terms of his buddy Rose, but it left the other Bulls feeling even more muddled and undercut.
"The last two weeks were so tough," said forward Carlos Boozer, better at perspective Thursday than he was at shooting a basketball (1 of 11). "Pooh [Rose] going down. Jo going down. I'll tell you one thing: It didn't break our spirit though. You saw us fighting every day, scrapping out there against a team that was completely healthy, with a lot of talent out there. I give us credit for that. We were a lot shorthanded, it wasn't a little bit."
It took the Bulls a moment -- too long -- to figure out just what they were fighting for. Boozer admitted that "psychologically it had an effect on us." By the time they shook off the hits to Rose and Noah, they were down 3-1 in the series. By the time they made it clear that their Game 5 victory was about more than pride or refusing to get ousted at home, they were scrambling in Game 6.
And by the time they righted themselves with a 16-4 run to close the third quarter, broken offense and all, their will and intensity restored, they were betrayed at the end by execution. And rebounding. And defense. Betrayed by all their strengths. If Watson hadn't gone for what he thought would be a "clear dunk" for Asik and instead had pulled out or taken a Philly foul, he would have put a more reliable shooter on the line or run too much clock for the Sixers to recover.
If Taj Gibson or Deng or someone in red had grabbed Asik's second miss instead of Iguodala ... If another Bulls player had caught and veered toward the streaking Sixers forward to disrupt his rush to the rim ...
A season full of ifs for Chicago and a postseason undermined by more of them leads immediately into an offseason that will be dominated by them, along with buts and whats and question marks.
Will Rose return with anywhere near his old explosiveness and, by the way, just when will that be? What does this new disappointing Bulls timetable mean for Deng's bum left wrist, in need of surgery but pledged by him to the London Olympics? Can Boozer and Richard Hamilton fend off further decline late in their careers and keep the many moving parts in Chicago's championship dream in sync?
If some rotation guys go -- Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver (a non-factor against Philly) all face contract decisions from Bulls management -- who will replace them? What have fans, Thibodeau's bosses and the coach himself learned about Thibodeau from two spring setbacks? And hey, were the Bulls really going to be good enough, even if healthy, to get past Miami, any other East threats and whoever comes out of the West this year or for as long or short as their window stays open?
Almost to a man afterward, the Bulls players blamed the injuries and said the current group deserves another shot. But then, almost all eliminated players say that. It will be up to general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball John Paxson to sift through that -- and the rubble -- for the truth.
"It's gonna be a long summer," Gibson said as the locker room emptied. "You think about those back-to-backs. Those grind-out practices. We didn't go so hard for it to end like this. We had one goal, to push it and get to The Finals. Look at everything we had -- best record in our division, best record in basketball, put ourselves in great position. All set up."
All knocked down, and out.
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