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By Sam Smith | 5.15.2015 | 9:10 a.m.
“While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”
— Maya Angelou
And so the Bulls’ 2014-15 season ends with arguably their worst loss of the season at the most vital time, the closeout game of the conference semifinal against rival LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who defeated the Bulls 94-73.
It perhaps sets back the Bulls farther than they imagined, now five and 16 in four playoff series losses to a James team in the last six years, unable to make progress against James even as he played with a shorthanded team and Thursday had just 15 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. So it raises questions about the future of coach Tom Thibodeau, of whether personnel changes are coming after falling so rapidly after winning the first game of the series in Cleveland and whether the Bulls overestimated what they had.
“That’s the goal every year, (a title),” said Joakim Noah. “Come in every year focused, give (us) a shot. Right now we’re disappointed; it always takes time to digest a season, a lot of ups and down. Right now, I think everybody is hurt, everybody is down. Disappointed with the way the season ended.”
It ended pretty much midway through the second quarter after a spirited 12-6 Bulls start behind Rose pushing the ball in transition and Pau Gasol fighting back from a hamstring injury for eight first quarter points. Though the Bulls trailed 33-31 after one, they were scoring and shooting well (56.5 percent in the quarter), Gasol looked lively, Jimmy Butler was holding down James, two of seven shooting in the quarter, and the expectant home crowd was rocking.
Then early in the second quarter, Kyrie Irving buckled in a collision with teammate Tristan Thompson and had to leave for the game after scoring six points in the first quarter. With Kevin Love out for the series and now Irving heading for the locker room, it was looking more and more like a Game 7 Sunday in Cleveland. And we all know that’s the anything can happen game.
The Bulls pulled ahead 40-38 on a Nikola Mirotic offensive rebound score and one of two free throws after taking J.R. Smith into the post. But the game would soon change dramatically when Mirotic reached across trying to stop a driving Iman Shumpert. Mirotic got Shumpert across the neck for what would be called a flagrant foul while Mirotic would peer over Shumpert. Shumpert, the Oak Park native, made one of two free throws and then a jumper and a three, yelling and cursing afterward at Mirotic after each.
“I think that was the wrong guy to clothesline in his home town,” said Cavs coach David Blatt. “He is really a tough guy besides being a heck of a basketball player. It seemed to really wake him up.”
The Bulls basically never recovered; it’s not a group that quits, but they seemed to, at least, give in. Shumpert hit another three and J.R. Smith added one for a 20-4 run to end the half, the Cavs taking a 58-44 halftime lead. The Bulls then opened the second half missing 10 of their first 11 shots, reverting to their slow paced, heavy play call, stagnant offense with one screen or dribble handoff and shot. They’d pushed the ball in that first quarter, swung for open shots. Now it was back to running down the shot clock and the season. Butler had a little run at the end of the third to get the Bulls within 73-60. But then Dellavedova playing for Irving shot the Bulls out of it to open the fourth and midway through the period the arena was emptying with the Cavs leading by 25.
“For whatever reason we couldn’t really channel our best effort and that’s really been the story all year long,” said Mike Dunleavy. “Since that Game 6 in Milwaukee, we just couldn’t get it going. We have a lot of talent, at our best as good as anybody, and a lot of high expectations. If you would have told me at the beginning of the series about all of Cleveland’s ailments, I would have really liked our chances. We just could not figure it out for whatever reason, whether it be chemistry or injuries. I just can’t put a finger on it. We couldn’t put it together.”
Now we’ll see if they come apart.
The most frequent question hanging over the team this season has been the fate of coach Tom Thibodeau.
“Until they tell me I’m not, I expect to be here,” Thibodeau said when asked post game about if he’ll be back. “That’s how I’m approaching it.”
Thibodeau has been rumored as a top candidate for vacant positions in Orlando and New Orleans, but Thibodeau said he hasn’t thought about that.
Thibodeau is 255-139 in five seasons with the Bulls, one of the best regular season records in the league in that span. It’s a winning mark of 64 percent. But the Bulls are 23-28 in the playoffs under Thibodeau, a 45 percent success rate. Plus, the Bulls have twice lost in the first round to lower seeds, though one was in 2012 when Rose suffered his ACL injury. The Bulls have lost to James teams in the playoffs three times in five games and this season in six.
Players generally don’t want to be involved in management decisions regarding coaching, but all basically supported Thibodeau.
“Me and Thibs really grew a relationship after the season last year when I was coming back with USA Basketball,” said Rose. “Went to eat with him at least a couple of times when we were out there. He was working me out every day while we were with USA Basketball. If it’s a feud or whatever is going on I just hope they fix it. I don’t mind him as a coach. We don’t talk about it (Thibodeau’s situation). When you have times you go six minutes without scoring it’s bigger than a coach. It’s all about the players. He came out to L.A. to check on me when I was working out after my surgeries. It’s not my decision. I love him as a coach.”
“Thibs is a hard worker, somebody who always has had us prepared,” said Noah. “We don’t know what the situation is with anybody. We lost in the second round, but a lot of great memories. It’s not my decision.”
“He has done a great job,” said Dunleavy. “He’s given us everything he has every single day and anyone would want a coach like that. We have a lot of great guys in this group and we will better next year.”
Dunleavy has said he’d love to return. He is an unrestricted free agent who has been a vital all around contributor. But the Bulls want to see Doug McDermott and Tony Snell play more. So Dunleavy’s fate is uncertain. Nazr Mohammed likely will retire. Aaron Brooks is the third unrestricted free agent and probably will get an offer above his minimum deal with the Bulls. Jimmy Butler is a restricted free agent and the Bulls have been on record saying they will match any offer for Butler, so his return seems certain.
The Bulls are over the salary cap, but they are limited in even using their mid level exception given the maximum salary Butler likely will command. So an addition seems uncertain. They have one first round draft pick, No. 22. So the current core likely will be together another season without any significant change.
“This team has more potential,” said Gasol. “We showed at times our potential. In order to be a great team, a championship caliber team, you have to be little more consistent than we have been. Injuries have been a factor, but that happens to most teams. We just have to mature and take this opportunity to grow as a team. Kind of digest the pain of losing against the Cavs and being eliminated from the playoffs. Understand how every game is important in the regular season. This team has more potential to get farther and have a chance to win the title.”
Maybe it was the injuries or minutes restrictions which bothered Thibodeau, the uncertainty regarding Rose, the sub-par season from Noah, the troubles for Kirk Hinrich, the fall of the bench in the playoffs (Dellavedova outscored the entire Bulls bench until the last seconds), the inconsistent use and play of the young players, the change in character of the team with the addition of offensive oriented players like Gasol, Brooks and Mirotic. In any case, it was a team that played games and the season in spurts, droughts in games, weeks of uninspired play. It wasn’t the same Bulls team of recent years, overachieving if underwhelming in the end.
“I don’t know if there will be changes,” said Gasol. “It’s something management and ownership have to decide. The team, at times, has shown great potential and high quality, but we have to find more consistency. We have to understand and have a better sense of urgency throughout the year. We’re a resilient team, but I feel like there are certain points we were content with having a few good games and having good stretches. To be one of the top teams you have to stay hungry, stay focused, stay disciplined throughout the 82 games.”
Perhaps most surprising Thursday was not only losing in rebounding again (Tristan Thompson with 13 points and 17 rebounds), but being dominated 53-32 on the boards by a team without Love, losing Irving, Smith with more rebounds than any Bulls player but Noah.
“Yes,” Noah said about it being a lost opportunity against a weakened Cavs team that had Smith suspended the first two games. “The reality is there’s no more basketball, no more practices, no more meetings with this group. That’s always hard; it always takes a little time to digest. Really disappointed right now.
I feel like I definitely have to play better than I did this year; I’m disappointed about that. This is definitely a really tough point right now losing with the caliber of players we had and the expectations we had. But I think it’s going to make us stronger and make us work that much harder.”
It was as close a Bulls team has looked to admitting defeat to end a great series that had three straight games come down to the last seconds. But Thursday not only do the Bulls get outrebounded by 21, but they get just 10 free throws, showing little aggression on both sides of the ball. It was the biggest loss in a closeout game in franchise history.
So is it over?
“Not at all,” said Rose. “When I think about that (window closing), I think about the Dallas team that won a couple of years ago; nobody had them winning. I think just coming out here and believing that’s what it’s all about.
“We’ve been trying to figure this out the entire year, our ups and downs,” Rose added. “Trying to give you the best answer as possible, I really don’t know. Look at film, as I always say, and try to fix. Hopefully, when we come back we’ll have a different game plan, a different approach to how we play each game; we’ve got to figure it out.”