And then there was one, one Bulls loss or Indiana Pacers’ win separating the Bulls from a destiny they and most everyone else around the NBA never considered possible six months ago.
“Just (not) the way we wanted the season to end up, not (what) we wanted,” said Jimmy Butler with 25 points as the Bulls were overrun down the stretch and lost 106-98 to the Miami Heat. “I think everybody thinks about it each and every day, probably keeps everybody awake; I know it does for me. Can’t change it now; it is what it is.”
And it isn’t very appealing to the Bulls.
They are now one loss or Indiana Pacers win with three games left from being one of the biggest surprise lottery teams of the season, and perhaps several seasons. It would end an eight-year run of Bulls playoff appearances. The Pacers play Toronto Friday while the Bulls host Cleveland Saturday.
“Staying positive, (trying to) finish the right way,” said Derrick Rose, who had 17 points. “Still have three more to go; it’s tough. We fought tonight. The second half really got us; third quarter, I think, they scored 30-plus points (35). That’s what changed the game.
“We played nonchalant the second half,” lamented Rose. “Really didn’t get into them, gave them a lot of confidence, especially their bench players. I think all the guys, we all have good intentions. Just that tonight–and this season–things didn’t fall our way.”
And soon figures to begin the post mortems, the tortured analysis of what went wrong and why, who will stay and who will go, what changes need to be made or can be made, a long spring and summer to consider the winter of their discontent.
“It’s definitely several factors that affected our performance,” said Pau Gasol, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. “You can say transitioning from one coaching staff to another affected; you can say injuries had an effect; you can say the guys didn’t want it bad enough. It’s just things that are critical and important but to what percentage, I don’t know.
“I feel (the attitude) has been pretty positive all things considered,” said Gasol. “I think it’s hard when the team has struggled and we have put ourselves in this position where there is a lot of tension and pressure. But again, we deserve to be in it because of how we played; the team has to understand games in November, December, January are just as important as the games now in April. The lack of sense of urgency has been pretty noticeable. But overall we try to stay positive, try to stay together. We had some really good stretches tonight where the team looked pretty good, very good; the third quarter really hurt us giving up 35 points and allowing them to get going. Got to work on sustaining the mental effort and focus for 48 minutes, which the team hasn’t been able to do.
“You can name a lot of factors (for what happened),” Gasol added. “You guys (media) can try to pinpoint things, but as players we just didn’t do our job well enough during the season and each and every one of us has to take responsibility for it; it’s not about pointing fingers or looking for whose fault. It’s everyone’s.”
The Bulls were shorthanded once again with Taj Gibson and E’Twaun Moore still out, and, of course, Joakim Noah for the season. Those are three of the Bulls best defenders, probably three of the top four along with Butler, and it was a poor defensive second half, particularly to start the second half and finish the game, that doomed the Bulls.
After playing a strong first half defensively and leading 46-40 at halftime with dominance on the boards and holding Miami to under 40 percent shooting, the Bulls gave up 66 points after halftime, including seven offensive rebounds in the closing minutes that proved fatal in the game.
“We had a little lapse in the third quarter; that’s part of the game. And we couldn’t get back out of it,” said Butler. “We played like we wanted to play. I’m not going to say we didn’t go out there and fight. I liked that aspect of it. It’s lapses on defense. We get away (from) what we are supposed to be doing, whether it’s help side or pick and roll defense, where guys are supposed to be on the floor. If one guy is not there, the next guy can’t be there, the next guy and so forth; that’s what causes a lot of those 30-point quarters.”
So it was perhaps a fitting near conclusion that once again a lack of defensive cohesion and consistency along with lapses of intense play produced yet another disappointment.
In the end, Miami scored 64 points in the paint, had a ridiculous 24-11 edge in second chance points, 16 in the second half, and a 23-14 edge in second half rebounds. Hassan Whiteside with 16 points and 12 rebounds had five offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter and eight points. Dwyane Wade led Miami overall with 21 points and Joe Johnson had 17.
The Bulls got spirited and physical play off the bench from Cristiano Felicio with eight points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes and Bobby Portis with six points and 10 rebounds, six offensive, in 20 minutes. In fact, the Bulls in a game with nine lead changes and eight ties were leading 82-81 with seven minutes left when coach Fred Hoiberg went back to Gasol for Felicio. Wade then missed an 18 footer and Rose made a tough runner for an 84-81 Bulls lead with 6:22 left. It looked like the Bulls, trailing 75-69 entering the fourth quarter, might put some pressure on that last playoff spot.
But it soon began to come apart as with Gasol and Nikola Mirotic trying to protect the front line, Whiteside proved too physical. The Bulls also went the next five minutes with one field goal. The Bulls did make some crucial plays on defense, but they couldn’t take advantage.
Butler blocked Justise Winslow’s seemingly certain layup with 5:45 left and the Bulls ahead 84-83. Rose stole a Johnson pass, but Justin Holiday missed a three. Amar’e Stoudemire finished a Wade pass to give Miami the lead. The Bulls briefly took it back at 86-85 when Butler was fouled on a drive and made two free throws with 4:43 left.
Whiteside, whom the Bulls controlled in the first half with just four points and two rebounds, rolled to the basket for a lob from Wade. Rose missed, Gasol got a tough offensive rebound and Rose was blocked by Whiteside going back up. It was still 87-86 Miami with 3:54 left.
Wade made a runner and was fouled, making the free throw for a 90-86 Miami lead with 3:46 left. Butler then missed a jumper.
Then came the first of several crucial and brutal for the Bulls sequences. Johnson missed, but Whiteside rebounded, missed, rebounded again and put it in. Butler then lost the ball to Wade and Luol Deng made a layup for a 95-88 Miami lead with 2:34 left. It was slipping away from the Bulls, a game and a season.
Butler pushed his way in and got two free throws. Wade missed, but Whiteside got the ball again and was fouled. He made one. Butler missed a three and then it happened again, Wade with a miss, Whiteside the rebound. Whiteside missed the put back and got his own rebound again and made a short hook shot for a 98-90 Miami lead with 1:28 left, seven Miami offensive rebounds in just over four minutes. The Heat was the better team. Rookie Josh Richardson hit a three shortly thereafter to leave no doubt.
“We had a good one going with about four, just under five to go with Jimmy’s free throws,” said Hoiberg. “Forced them to miss a shot, but couldn’t keep Whiteside off the glass. One possession where he got, I think, his second offensive rebound obviously was a huge play. We went down and turned it over and they scored off it to go up seven late in the game; we made those plays in the first half. I thought we got every 50/50 ball, I thought we were out there fighting, had unbelievable energy. Start of the third quarter, again, we let them come out and set the tempo after us doing the majority of that in the first half, allowed 35 points in that quarter. It wasn’t because of a lack of fight tonight. We came out and played with a great sense of urgency and energy for the most part and, unfortunately, we just couldn’t keep Whiteside off the glass late in the game.”
Hoiberg said he did think about riding Felicio more for his defense, but made the decision to go back to Gasol.
“I went with the guy that’s won two championships,” said Hoiberg. “I went with the guy who is a veteran, a guy that’s made plays his whole career; that was the sub I made. Pau went in and made some plays for us. He knows where to be on the screens, on the specialty plays we run. The decision making was I just went with the veteran.
“Just got to keep fighting,” added Hoiberg. “Go out and play with that intensity and energy the last three games; that’s all we can do is go out and keep fighting.”
It’s all they can say now with a theoretical and mathematical hope. But the questions are starting to come about what’s next, and first to the free agents, like Gasol.
“Nothing is set right now,” Gasol said when asked about his plans. “Definitely, I will evaluate when the time comes. The way the team has responded to adversity and the way we finished up the season has not been so far great. It’s been disappointing. At the end of the day, when the time comes, I will evaluate things. It’s hard to finish a season like this–it’s not finished. We’re in, as we know, an extremely difficult position. So everything will be thought of and considered.
“I always try to play every game like it’s my last,” said Gasol. “I try to give it my all. I’m at the point in my career where I have played a lot of basketball. I try to give it my best every single night. I think I’m doing overall pretty good, but I’m not thinking it could be my last game (as a Bull). It could, but it could be your last game any given night.”
It could be the Bulls last game of 2015-16 very soon.