After posting the league's best record, the Chicago Bulls saw their championship dreams come to an unceremonious end at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series 79-78. The Bulls, whose reputation all season has been predicated on rebounding and tough defense, was outplayed and outdefended by a 76ers team that no one believed had a chance of even making this series competitive.
The Bulls were exposed as a strong, but ultimately flawed team that is still several pieces away from serious title contention. Granted, losing Derrick Rose after Game 1 was a tremendous blow for the team. Still, many sports analysts believed the Bulls had enough to beat an offensively challenged and star-deprived 76ers team.
The Bulls' failure to win the first-round series showed their terrific play in the regular season may have incorrectly convinced some that their "team first" dynamic was the making of champion this season. (The Bulls became just the fifth No. 1 seed to lose to an No. 8 seed, and the third team since the first round went to a best-of-seven format.)
This view proved to be incorrect. Here are the six beliefs that proved inaccurate in the Bulls' first-round loss.
Many people felt that the Chicago Bulls were ready to take that next step, get by the Miami Heat and win the title. This view was shared by NBA analysts Jon Barry and Charles Barkley who picked the Bulls to win the East early in the season and remained on the Bulls' bandwagon until its wheels feel off in the form of Derrick Rose's season-ending leg injury.
However, I must say that even when the Chicago Bulls were stampeding the rest of the NBA with their tenacious defense, rebounding and overall team play, I was never convinced that the Bulls would win a title this year even if they stayed healthy.
My problem with the Bulls, which we saw in the 76ers series, is that their greatest strength is an ability to compensate for a lack of "superstar"-caliber talent (minus Rose, of course) with hustle, hard-work and team play. They simply outwork their opponents in the regular season. However, when the playoffs roll around, the Bulls lose their primary advantage because every team plays hard at that point, and then it becomes more about talent than it does work ethic.
Another thing that the Bulls struggled with was their lack of versatility. I have said it countless times: In the regular season, when teams are playing three games in five days, they may not have the chance to game plan for the Bulls' bench players.
This can allow and John Lucas III and Kyle Korver to catch teams napping and have big games off the bench. In the playoffs, with each of these players being the focus of a Bulls' scouting report, their limitations as players are more likely to be exposed.
As good as the Bulls' vaunted "Bench Mob" has been this year, especially with the injuries to Richard Hamilton and Derrick Rose, it is filled with one-demensional talent that can be exposed in the postseason.
The Bulls' lack of multifaceted players (Boozer, Korver and Lucas can score, but can't defend, while Asik, Brewer and Noah can defend, but can't score) makes them an easier team to game plan for. As a result, the Bulls get exposed and have difficult making adjustments. This does not happen to title teams.
Tell me if you heard this one before: An NBA analyst takes regular season numbers as evidence of a team's overall ability to win in the playoffs.
"The Bulls beat the Heat in a game without Derrick Rose, so obviously they should be able to take them out in the post-season." This argument is not particularly sound because there are always variables that can impact regular season outcomes that are never considered in these types of blanket assessments.
For example, shouldn't an opponent's schedule be a factor in this analysis? Were players out with injury, which allowed the Bulls to take advantage and win? Did the Bulls benefit from an unexpected, but unlikely to be repeated in the postseason offensive game from an unlikely source? Could that have suggested an advantage that would not otherwise exist in a series?
Granted, sometimes regular season matchups do become a harbinger to what will occur in the postseason (like LeBron James' regular season struggles against the Maverick's' zone defense occurring in the finals last year), but usually, so much time has passed and so many variables are different that it may not matter.
The Bulls are a solid team, but to basically anoint them the league's best team by just looking at their record is not particularly good analysis. Anyone can look at the standings and say the Bulls are "the best team in the league," but a closer look suggests that they had tremendous issues soon to be brought to light. For example, they lacked a secondary-consistent offensive backup to Derrick Rose.
Toward the end of the regular season, several coaches decided to rest their players and keep them fresh for the playoffs. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra did not play his big three together in the last five games, while San Antonio Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich rested his starters throughout the regular season and just prior to the playoffs.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took a different route. Perhaps driven in equal parts a desire to regain the team's chemistry following Rose's late season return to the lineup and the desire to secure the top seed in the East, Thibodeau did not rest his starters for a game this season. He limited minutes on occasion, but he basically played his starters in every game in which they were available.
Some Bulls fans viewed it as a masterstroke. While other teams are worried about rest and playoffs preparation, the Bulls were going to be working on playing together and maintaining their rhythm into the postseason. Few media outlets questioned the move.
Then, the Bulls came out in Game 1 and appeared to prove the coach's move wise. They dominated the 76ers most of the game. Then, right before Rose went down with injury, the 76ers made a run to cut the Bulls' 20-point lead to 12, and they appeared a bit fatigued in the second half. Then, Game 2 rolled around, and it developed in similar fashion. The Bulls were up by seven at the half, but looked gassed later and lost by 17.
Was it a smart move for the coach to play his starters so hard in the regular season? After all, shouldn't the Bulls' primary goal have been to get ready for postseason play? Look at the teams that have performed the best thus far in the playoffs: The Heat, Spurs and Celtics.
Each of these teams had ample rest before the playoffs to get their bodies prepared for the grind of postseason basketball. The Bulls never rested, they cared so much about winning the top seed that they failed to consider the physical toll it would take on them in the long run.
In the offseason, after the Bulls were eliminated by the Miami Heat in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls knew they needed to upgrade at the shooting guard position.
Their shooting guard at the time, the defensively solid but offensively challenged Keith, was not able to carry the offense when defenses doubled Derrick Rose. The Bulls and their fans believed that with former All-Star and NBA champion Richard "Rip" Hamilton in toe, the Bulls would have the consistent offense alongside Rose.
However, even before Hamilton's plethora of injuries, I warned that he might not be the answer. My problem with the Hamilton signing was that the Bulls didn't just need a shooter at the 2, they also needed another consistent playmaker. They needed a guy that could make plays, so Rose didn't have to be the team's only playmaker on the floor in the starting lineup.
After Rose's injury, we saw how accurate my original perception turned out to be. Hamilton couldn't make shots consistently, and since he was not a playmaker, the Bulls had to rely on C.J. Watson and John Lucus to man the point, nether of which had been trusted to step up and perform well under these circumstances.
Obviously, the Bulls could not have foreseen Hamilton's season-long injury issues, but they knew he was going to be 34 soon after they signed him and should have at least considered the issue of durability in the lock-out shortened season.
Even if he and Rose could have remained healthy and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals again, the question remained: How will the Bulls' offense function if the Miami Heat are able to neutralize Rose again? When your best playmaker in the starting lineup after Rose is Noah, that spells trouble.
Some fans argued the Bulls' record proved they didn't need stars to win in a seven-game series. Although the dreams of a championship were extinguished after the injury to Derrick Rose, many people still felt that the Bulls' depth and defense would pull them through.
The 76ers series illustrated the primary difference between the postseason and the regular season: Depth is great, but stars win in the playoffs. The Bulls did not have a guy that could carry the load offensively down the stretch of games when the team desperately needed just a little bit more offense.
Granted, after the 76ers erupted for 109 points in Game 2, the Bulls' defense held them under 90 points in every game for the rest of the series. In fact, the 76ers scored over 80 just once after Game 2. But when it came down to who will be the scoring punch to get the Bulls a win, no one stepped to the forefront.
Carlos Boozer played well in Games 4 and 5, despite some bad turnovers. Luol Deng had two exceptional performances in Games 5 and 6, but the "team" dynamic appears to only work in the regular season. The 76ers, who will probably fall to the Celtics in the next round, are the only remaining team in the playoffs without a standout offensive superstar.
In theory, the idea of everyone playing a specific role in order for the team to win is a great concept. Rarely does it translate to postseason success because teams are so locked into the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, and non-stars generally can't consistently produce under that kind of pressure.
The belief coming into the playoffs was that the Bulls were ready to finally get over the hump of the Miami Heat and advance to the NBA Finals.
Derrick Rose appeared healthy, and the team had held down the fort in his absence, going 18-9 without the NBA MVP. Many NBA analysts such as Charles Barkley, Jon Barry and Tim Legler had come out picking the Bulls to beat the Heat and get to the finals.
Then, after Rose's injury in Game 1 against the 76ers, those predictions needed to be changed. Now, we will never know with certainty whether the Bulls could actually have beaten Miami this season. It may be one of those questions debated over the summer after the playoffs have ended.
Nevertheless, I already know which side I stand on: I think, even at full strength with home-court advantage, the Bulls would have lost to the Heat.
The primary reason is the outcome of the 76ers series. I know the Bulls were without Derrick Rose and lost Joakim Noah in Game 3, but they were still picked to win this series by most experts and appeared to have an advantage over the younger team.
This loss would simply not have happened to the Heat in Round 1 even if they had lost James in the first game because Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would have found a way to get them past the decent but not great 76ers team.
Now, I realize that no team can win a title without their best player. Certainly the Game 3 injury to Noah was huge as well. The Bulls still had their second and third best players available in Deng and Boozer, not to mention a productive bench and a solid road record. The team ready to win a title should have be able to beat this 76ers team.
The Bulls are going to have to make changes in the offseason if they truly want to contend next year.