Wade and Taj on the Bulls-Heat rivalry

The NBA often seems like one big, extended family, and more so these days the way players fraternize, pregame fist bumps and hugs, post game embraces that sometimes makes old timers wince. Where’s the hate?

The Bulls not long ago had that hate, mostly for the Miami Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the latter who happens now to be one of those Bulls. Most of these Bulls don’t remember. But Taj Gibson does, and he admits sometimes he peers over at Wade from his nearby locker with malice in his heart.

Not to say passion is not there anymore, but as the Bulls reach the halfway mark of the NBA season Saturday in a 4 p.m. game against the New Orleans Pelicans, it is a Bulls team that is a long way from that wonderful playoff series in 2011, and considering at mid season where it must go from here.

Jimmy Butler and Denzel Valentine are listed as questionable for the game with flu; Nikola Mirotic is out with the illness. The Pelicans’ Anthony Davis is questionable with a hip injury. The Bulls, at 19-21, are to get back to .500. The Pelicans even with superstar Davis are trying to fight their way out of the bottom of the West at 16-24.

Those were heady times for the Bulls, and one of the great what ifs in franchise history.

Though the Bulls lost that 2011 series 4-1 to Miami, losing the last four games, Game 4 was an overtime loss and in Game 5 the Bulls blew a 12-point lead in the last three minutes. It was similar to the Bulls’ infamous late 1980s meltdowns against the Detroit Pistons until the Bulls finally broke through, the defeats in the kiln of playoff competition hardening the Bulls and firing them up to finally break through. Often teams need the heat of competition and the fire that comes from defeat to move beyond where others have placed them.

It would be the eventual dynasty for those Bulls. That wasn’t inconceivable, as well, for those 2010-11 Bulls. But less than 12 months later in the team’s first playoff game of 2012, Derrick Rose suffered his career changing, catastrophic ACL injury and the Bulls express to success was derailed.

No one now believes they would have beaten Miami because they didn’t. What would have happened in the 90’s if it were Michael Jordan so injured?

“It was a good team,” agreed Wade of those Bulls. “It was a team we knew we had to bring it against. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get a chance to go against them more; unfortunate for them, for sure. There a lot of teams like them in this league. You say, ‘What if?’ There are always what ifs in this league; it’s unfortunate because of injuries that it doesn’t happen.”

Those are the forgotten stories of sports, the teams poised to break through but struck down in their prime, like young prodigies. Chicago had its share with the ’69 Cubs, the ’94 White Sox, the Bears who got one but who should have had five. The NBA has seen so many, Shaq and Penny’s Magic, Nellie’s 80s Bucks, the Suns in the 70s, 90’s and under D’Antoni, Rasheed’s ‘Blazers, Webber’s Kings. The race goes to the fittest and most fortunate. Runnersup are dismissed as fantasy.

The Bulls couldn’t be sure what would be with Rose, so they patched it together for five years with hopes of breaking through when he returned with Mike Dunleavy, Marco Belinelli, Richard Hamilton, Pau Gasol. Finally, last summer they gave in, trading Rose and losing Joakim Noah and Gasol in free agency. So it is just a few months since that decision to move on, merely the embryonic stages. The future still has to be in the discussion stages after six such grueling and competitive years.

“I guess we were snake bitten because we had a lot of injuries,” said Gibson. “Had a lot of times to challenge them at the right times. But when you go through so many ups and downs the way we went through as far as injuries, emotions, and then you have to look at it. We are going against LeBron James, trying to challenge for a championship. It’s rough. You’re going against D-Wade. I’m looking at him every day out of the corner of my eyes.’’

Though Gibson and Wade have developed a strong rapport, the times have to haunt the competitive Bulls power forward.

“It was a great time in my life,” says Gibson. “I would never change that because it taught me a lot about the game and I appreciate it. It’s good memories and it’s behind us now. We just have to move forward.’’

Though it’s doubtful that Gibson will ever forget that series and fateful Game 5.

It looked so great for the Bulls when they beat the new super team Heat by 21 points in Game 1 after rolling through Atlanta in the conference semifinals. Game 2 went to the Heat by 10. Tied with seven minutes left, James controlled the closing stretch. Miami won Game 3 by 11, pulling away from a four-point game in the fourth quarter with Chris Bosh’s 34 points. In Game 4, Miami trailed by five in the fourth quarter and Rose missed a winner at the buzzer. The Bulls lost in overtime as the Heat smothered Rose with the Bulls’ limited offense. Wade finally broke out a little with six overtime points after scoreless second half.

And then back in Chicago for Game 5, it looked all Bulls as they led 77-65 with 3:14 left. Wade made a pair of drives, LeBron made a three, and then came the big play, a Wade three with 90 seconds left, a curious foul called on the shot for a four-point play to get Miami within three—Wade’s first three of the series—a LeBron three to tie and a LeBron basket finally stuns everyone.

Wade admitted when it was brought up Thursday that, yes, he probably kicked his leg out on that shot. They didn’t call that then.

Those are the differences, but those also are the realities.

If you still have a healthy LeBron you are a contender, as the Cavs are. Miami is well behind the Bulls in the standings now, looking to rebuild with rumors spreading of a breakup and trade of Goran Dragic. Bosh is looking either for a new doctor or to stay retired after a blood clot issue. Wade’s doing what he can for the Bulls, averaging 18.8 points and trying to carry things without Butler. It only goes so far.

Most franchises go through this; the rare ones are lucky to be healthy and have no one call an offensive foul.

“Me and Taj have talked about it from the standpoint of Thibs making them hate us,” said Wade. “But, hey, I was on the other side, so I didn’t like Taj neither. We didn’t have a coach that made us not like them. I just didn’t like him.”

It’s much more pleasant to reminisce when you can count the championship rings.