Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Can the banged-up Bulls rally to save their season?

With injuries to four key players, team looks to give itself a fighting chance

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By Sam Smith | 3.14.2016 | 9:30 a.m.

The Bulls haven’t been kicked out of the playoffs or had their team shut down quite yet, but it’s perhaps getting dangerously close.

The Bulls Monday are in Toronto with Pau Gasol back in Chicago with a right knee swollen. Derrick Rose remains doubtful to play with a groin strain, though Jimmy Butler could return after missing 15 of the last 17 games with a knee strain. He’ll be on playing time constraints.

The Bulls are ninth in the Eastern Conference with the most difficult schedule remaining among the contenders for the last spots. The Bulls play 10 of their final 18 on the road while the Pistons and Pacers each have five road games left. The Bulls and Pistons both play eight games against teams with winning records while the Pacers play six. The Pistons also currently hold the tiebreaker against the Bulls while the Pacers lead the Bulls by two games. The Wizards are 2.5 games behind the Bulls in 10th, but would win the tiebreaker if they defeat the Bulls on this trip Wednesday in Washington.

“We’ve got to fight through the tough times,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after Sunday practice. “We’re playing a team that’s won 14 of 15 at home and is playing their best basketball of the season. That’s a big thing with our group, finding a way to fight through these tough times right now. We’re dealing with a lot of injuries and adversity. You can’t feel sorry for yourselves.”

It’s often said, it’s darkest before the dawn.

Which, by the way, is a good time to steal your neighbor’s newspaper since they won’t see you at that time. But that’s not the point.

The point is the Bulls may be feeling like the Delta House guys from the Animal House movie, depressed that everything seems to be going against them, mounting injuries, lost fourth quarter leads, not enough support; perhaps ready to relent.

So Hoiberg Sunday in the team’s game film session showed the famous Bluto speech–OK, not quite Churchill’s fight on the beaches speech–when the guys were feeling sorry for themselves after Dean Wormer had “dropped the big one.”

This may not have resonated quite as much with Gasol since he’s more the arts patron and Animal House rarely is shown at the Civic Opera House. Though Pau didn’t go with the team to Toronto. Perhaps neither for Nikola Mirotic. Do they have fraternities in Montenegro?


“Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!…

It ain’t over now, ’cause when the goin’ gets tough……….the tough get goin’. Who’s with me? Let’s go! Come on!

There was the part here where no one followed, like late in some Bulls fourth quarters when they haven’t been following opponents back up court after their many turnovers.

“Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts, huh? This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you’re gonna let it be the worst. ‘Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you, Bluto, we might get in trouble.’ I’m not gonna take this!”

You know: “Let’s do it!”

Not ’til we say it’s over; or the NBA.

Unfortunately, it starts against a Toronto team second in the East and 0-3 against the Bulls this season. Teams usually aren’t circling games against ninth place teams. The Bulls aren’t sneaking up in this one. The last time the teams met in Toronto, Butler broke a Bulls record with 40 second half points in a two-point Bulls victory that ended with one of the last great moments of the season: A team group hug around Butler.

Now without Gasol and likely Rose and Butler just returning from missing more than a month, it’s the blazing hot Raptors breathing fire and eying some Bulls.

“We showed them a little speech from Animal House today,” Hoiberg said. “You just try to keep their morale up. That’s one thing again. I think we had six straight possessions with turnovers in the fourth quarter the other night, and you could just see our morale continue to go down. We’ve got to find a way to fight through that stuff. That’s been a big thing with this team, fight through the adversity. You have to have it. These last (18) games are crucial in that area.

“Pau is a guy especially with Derrick out of the lineup that you can run your offense through,” noted Hoiberg. “We’re still looking at some different options as far as the starting lineup is concerned. Niko will have to play more minutes at that spot, so we’ll have some smaller lineup options out there. Bobby (Portis) will obviously get a shot. Cris (Felicio) after going through the last Toronto game gave us good solid minutes in that game. It’s just stepping up by committee for Pau. One guy isn’t going to do everything that Pau gives us. Guys are going to have to step up and try to fill the void as best they can.”

The speculation would be Felicio gets the start against the physical seven-foot Jonas Valanciunas.

Hoiberg said Gasol has experienced issues around his knee and said the team will look into treatment options. He had an MRI, which showed no structural damage.

Welcome back, Jimmy. You probably get DeMar DeRozan, who has scored at least 30 points in three of his last five games and likely remembers that 40 in a half pretty clearly.

“We gave ourselves a chance the other night (in the loss to Miami),” said Hoiberg. “Going into the fourth quarter, it was a one point game. With about eight or nine minutes to go, we just handed them the ball and it led to some run outs. And we were dead. Again, you have a couple of those turnovers and you have to find a way to fight through it. I can’t say what I want to right now. Fight through it and keep battling.”

Obviously, Hoiberg was venturing to the intangible part, that vague definition of leadership.

It reminded me of a somewhat similar time for the Bulls, late in the 2009-10 season with the Bulls just coming off a brutal double overtime loss to the Nets and traveling to Toronto. They’d probably have to win out the last three to pass Toronto for the final playoff spot. A loss to the Raptors would likely mean the end.

“How bad do we really want it,” was on the board in the locker room.

And then Joakim Noah went out and got 18 points and 19 rebounds playing through his plantar fasciitis that had caused a minutes limit that season and the Bulls won the big one. They polished off the last two games to make the playoffs. And though they lost to the Cavs and LeBron James in the first round, they had established their claim as a team that would fight you.

“I just wanted to make sure that our team played harder than their team,” Noah said the

That’s also what’s missing.

Noah, too, is back in Chicago rehabilitating his shoulder. He is out for the season. While you can identify the points, rebounds and assists missing when Gasol, Rose and Butler are out, you can’t measure the intangibles someone like Noah brings, the passion, the attitude, the motivation when you need something special. It’s much overstated about coaches handling that. They rarely do. That comes from your top players, and the loss of Noah has been inestimable this season for those times, as Hoiberg has talked about, when the desire may be there but the will diminishes.

“If your spirit gets broken, you have no chance,” said Hoiberg. “We got to find a way to deal with it and go out and give ourselves a chance.”

Are they the guys to do it? We’ll start to find out these next few weeks.

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