By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
A couple weeks ago, the Chicago Bulls were the team that no one in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket allegedly wanted to play.
In a matter of days, no one might have to.
Unless the Bulls find a way to generate offense late in games, unless they stop trying to beat Washington in three-and-a-half quarters while spotting the Wizards four, the grimiest, hardest-working team in basketball soon will be on extended vacation. For all its pluck, for all its spunk, Chicago is facing a hole as the series shifts to D.C. for Game 3 Friday every bit as big, historically, as losing an MVP (Derrick Rose) or trading away an All-Star (Luol Deng).
The Bulls overcame – maybe compensated for is more apt – the absences of Rose and Deng by shifting those guys’ responsibilities onto others and resolutely playing harder. But down 0-2 in this first-round series, they don’t really have any others left and they might be out of gears.
NBA past doesn’t bode well for the Bulls’ future, either. Only three teams in playoff history – the 1969 Lakers, ’94 Rockets and ’05 Mavericks – won a best-of-seven series after dropping the first two games at home. Houston finds itself in the same predicament against Portland at the moment, but never mind the company; the Bulls are coping with their own misery.
Their vaunted defense, with coach Tom Thibodeau barking orders and Joakim Noah as the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, has been shredded for 101.5 points and the Wizards’ 48.1 field-goal percentage in two games. Despite opening double-digit leads in both, the Bulls have been outscored in the fourth quarter 51-34 while shooting 35.3 percent (12 of 34), and they missed seven of nine shots in Game 2′s overtime.
As far as seeking help from different sources, there have been no different sources. The bench is thin after Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin, and Thibodeau has coached accordingly: Of the series’ 505 available minutes so far, more than 95 percent (481:33) have been heaped on just seven guys.
Even that is misleading: Jimmy Butler (96:46, including all 53 Tuesday) and Noah (85:36) each has played nearly as much as forwards Carlos Boozer (45:22) and Mike Dunleavy (54:42) combined. Thibodeau has stuck with the rotation that earned Chicago a 36-14 record in the 2014 portion of the regular season. That means Dunleavy has logged less than 10 minutes in the fourth quarters and OT in this series and Boozer has amassed zero.
Because Boozer and Dunleavy are primarily offensive players, not playing them when the points get scarce late in games has focused heat on Thibodeau. To a lot of Bulls fans, it’s like trying to ride out a headache without uncapping the aspirin bottle. But Thibodeau is committed to the late-game lineup that worked so well for so long. And, hey, he knows Boozer and Dunleavy primarily are offensive players too.
“You have to work your way out of things,” Thibodeau said, almost by rote. “We have a lot of guys who have played well in the fourth quarter all year. … We have to do it collectively. And that’s really what we’ve done. When we lost Derrick and we lost Luol, that’s the makeup of our team.
“You can’t get wrapped up in the first two games other than you want to learn from what happened. Get ready for the next one. Don’t look ahead. That’s the way we’ve approached it all season. We’re not changing now.”
Trouble is, Washington has risen to its rare postseason occasion. The Wizards have been feistier at both ends. Defensively, they’re pressuring the ball and almost daring the Bulls’ non-shooters to shoot.
Noah, Chicago’s “point center,” has been attacked when he attempts to handle the ball, ignored if he’s shooting outside the restricted zone and squeezed when he sets up 18 feet from the basket, Wasington’s Nene crowding Noah to limit his passing angles and vision. Nene’s offense has the DPOY sweating and maybe a little rattled, with Games 1 and 2 sandwiching the award ceremony in Chicago with Noah’s entire family in town.
Augustin, this year’s Rose surrogate, has been a scoring godsend, but when 6-foot-8 Trevor Ariza volunteered to guard the smallish point guard down the stretch in Game 2, Augustin was done. He stayed stuck on 25 points over the final 13 minutes.
Wizards coach Randy Wittman even has made the more apparent and successful adjustments so far – in transferring scoring load from frontcourt (Nene, Marcin Gortat) to backcourt (John Wall, Bradley Beal), in deploying veteran backup Andre Miller in key old-school moments – and been rewarded twice. That hits Thibodeau right where his strength is, in the lab, in resiliency.
Consider this role-reversal quote from Gibson on Wednesday.
“We watched the film, it came down to we were like a fingernail short every time. Guys were diving for the balls, scrambling around, and they just made some great plays, playoff-style basketball I guess,” the Bulls’ sixth man said.
“[They are] a hungry team. … They go up, we go up, but the way they start the games off, the way they finish them, especially on defense, getting loose balls, scramble plays, rugged-basketball kind of style, that’s kind of our style if you think about it.”
Actually, it was the Bulls’ style until Saturday. Unless they get back to that in Game 3 and whatever beyond they can eke out, their postseason will become past season in a hurry.