Just when you thought the Chicago Bulls were out – out of the race as serious contenders in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, out of luck as a team hoping to push through two or three rounds of the postseason – they pull you back in.
Then they push you away.
And then vice versa.
Followed by switcheroo.
Again. One more time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
One week ago, the Bulls were the upstart darlings of the league, noble warriors who – undermanned and as shadows of their former selves – still found a way to thwart the Miami Heat’s bid for the longest winning streak in U.S. major professional team sports. They led with their chins, their hearts and their skinned knees to snap the Heat’s streak at 27. They did it with defense and a toughness that, if their fans squinted tightly enough, looked like throwbacks to the stuff Chicago deployed so well in leading the NBA in victories the previous two seasons.
Then the Bulls locked up down the stretch to lose in Dallas, scrambled to eke out a one-point victory over Detroit and blew another lead at Washington Tuesday night. By the end of that one, the squad Chicago had in its locker room or in street clothes somewhere – Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli, Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich (the first five injured, the sixth ejected vs. the Wizards) – was better than the crew on the floor narrowly closing out the game.
Afterward, because it was the latest but also a repeat problem, Gibson’s strained left knee was the one that got most of the attention. The backup forward/center already had missed 10 games in March. He returned to put up some sub-par numbers in seven games and now looked to be right back where he started.
“That’s what happens when you rush back to try to help your team win,” Gibson told reporters afterward, providing a quote that, if it hasn’t already, surely will rattle around Rose’s head if he still is contemplating a late-season comeback from knee surgery.
The difficulty, nay, impossibility of maintaining a healthy rotation and the heavy use of players who manage to participate has turned Chicago into a tractionless tease. Rose’s prolonged absence, beyond what almost anyone in or outside the organization anticipated, put everything on hold – except for the minutes logged by and exposure to mishap for those left behind.
“Next man up,” is what coach Tom Thibodeau keeps saying, but next man down is what dominates the conversation for media and fans, what with Chicago’s 158 man-games lost to injury in 2012-13. The result has been a start-stop-start-stop-start-aw, the heck with it sort of season. Last week’s rousing victory over the Heat, another down in Miami in January, even the recent exhilarating overtime loss to Denver March 18 hinted at a Bulls team that could make noise in the playoffs. Yet truly miserable losses to Charlotte, Sacramento, Cleveland and a stars-less Spurs squad suggest the only noise will come from Chicago’s imminent crash.
It leaves Thibodeau and his gauze-covered players in a tricky spot with two weeks left in the season: Gut out some East bracket maneuvering or settle in, grab what rest and rehab are available and make one final push in (through?) the first round. More and more, it’s looking like a decision that will get foisted upon the Bulls this season, like pretty much everything else has been. The 2012-13 season has kind of happened to them.