The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder both bowed out of the 2013 NBA playoffs on Wednesday night. And as everyone knows, the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies advanced, but most folks already figured they'd be winners anyway.
We'd all seen enough over the first four games of their respective series to know that.
There was some intriguing stuff going on on Wednesday night, though, and it went far beyond the nominal winners and losers.
The more interesting winners of the evening included willpower, a roll of tape and an injured point guard. Intrigued? Then you'll probably also enjoy learning that the losers featured an overmatched coach, fairy tales and old-school wisdom.
Let's get to it.
The Miami Heat buried the Chicago Bulls in the opening minutes Wednesday, sprinting out to a 22-4 lead behind a remarkably synced-up offense. But a funny thing happened after that: The Bulls somehow, improbably, impossibly willed their way back into the game.
Bulls rally back from down 18 to cut deficit to just 4. They won't give up.#itsonlyafleshwound— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 15, 2013
The Bulls had every reason to throw in the towel early. They'd been beset by injuries and illnesses all series long. Plus, they were at a clear disadvantage in the talent department against the Heat.
Despite all that, Chicago kept fighting. Its defense tightened up, Nate Robinson started hitting threes, and the Heat's lead shrank.
By halftime, the unthinkable had happened:
Bulls up 53-47 at the half. Yes, up. Carlos Boozer has 19 points, Nate Robinson 14. LeBron and Wade each with 10.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 16, 2013
Conventional analysis was out the window. Everyone was just marveling at the Bulls' determination.
Wow. The Bulls will not be denied. Heart should become a statistical category. Chicago has a team of league leaders in that department.— Earl K. Sneed (@EarlKSneed) May 16, 2013
In the end, Chicago didn't have enough to stay alive in the game and series. Miami had too much talent, executed too well, and (if you ask Bulls fans) got too many favorable calls. Still, hats off to the Bulls, who didn't go out quietly.
Cannot say enough about the Bulls. Monster effort, all playoffs. Made Miami earn it, like we knew they would.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 16, 2013
So long, Scotty!
Yes, I'm aware that Scott Brooks signed a four-year extension with the Thunder last June. But we learned a little something about Brooks when Russell Westbrook went down, didn't we?
Specifically, we came to find out that OKC doesn't actually have an offense. That's not an exaggeration. Go back and try to identify any legitimate sets in either playoff series that OKC participated in during these playoffs. There are a handful of plays—basic ones, usually, designed to free up Kevin Durant on pindown screens or dribble handoffs—but as far as a cohesive scheme, there's nothing.
And now Brooks has to draw up a play. This is too much.— Eric Freeman (@freemaneric) May 16, 2013
That shortcoming falls squarely on Brooks, as does his team's repeated failure to make adjustments. Worst of all, everyone could see that Durant was on his own on offense, and Brooks never found a way to take even an ounce of pressure off of his beleaguered superstar.
It's fair to say that any coach would have struggled to weather the loss of his second-best player, but the fact that Westbrook's absence totally exposed OKC as a leaderless, streetball offense doesn't reflect well on Brooks.
He continued to start Kendrick Perkins despite the big man's consistently negative impact on the game. He gave Derek Fisher enough rope to hang himself, as the veteran hit just three of his 11 long-range shots in Game 5.
You might be asking "What's Brooks supposed to do without his star point guard?" Well, an offense that didn't require two superstars to function would have been a start.
Kevin Durant's best years are happening right now, and the Thunder ownership has to realize that Brooks isn't the guy who's going to maximize the value of those years.
Until he suited up to take the floor, nobody was really sure whether or not Dwyane Wade was going to play.
He missed some open shots in the early going and played with a notable tentativeness, which had many wondering whether Wade had made the right decision to test his bad left knee in a game that Miami could have won (at least in theory) without him.
Rip Hamilton is blocking Dwyane Wade on fastbreaks now. The Bulls, man.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 15, 2013
When the buzzer signaling the end of the third quarter sounded, Wade headed to the locker room. The Heat were trailing at the time, so it was reasonable to think that perhaps the veteran guard was going to call it a night and exchange his shorts for a comfortable pair of capris.
But after re-taping his troublesome knee, Wade returned for the fourth quarter. Only this time, the guy wearing the No. 3 jersey really looked like the nine-time All-Star that had been missing for weeks.
He nailed back-to-back runners off of a pair of tricky Eurosteps in the lane, giving Miami a four-point lead with 4:21 remaining in the game. Then he crashed the offensive glass, throwing down a follow-up dunk at the three-minute mark to put the Heat ahead by seven.
Dwyane Wade's knee is just fine, thank you.— ESPN (@espn) May 16, 2013
There's no telling how many more times Wade will be able to play like his old (young) self, but one thing became abundantly clear in that decisive fourth quarter: When D-Wade is anywhere close to full strength, the Heat make the leap from "great" to "unbeatable."
Oh, and another thing also became clear: The Heat have some really good tape in that locker room.
It would have been nice if the gritty Bulls had managed to stay alive for one more game. They desperately wanted to win, gave every ounce of sweat they had all series long, and even snatched a game from the vastly more talented Heat.
But NBA reality is harsher than that, and fairy tales in which the plucky underdog topples the menacing villain don't tend to come true.
Still, this season can't be termed a disappointment for the Bulls. They ran up against the defending champs without Derrick Rose...there really wasn't any other way for this series to turn out.
Assuming Rose returns next year in good health—we know for sure he's been getting his rest—and the Bulls find a couple of outside shooters to help create better offensive spacing, this team could make a much deeper postseason run in 2014.
Things didn't end with a "happily ever after" this year, but the story of the Bulls isn't finished yet.
From his vantage point in a luxury box above the lower bowl of Chesapeake Energy Arena, Russell Westbrook could see his team's offense unraveling. In fact, he'd been watching it happen from the moment he left the lineup with a torn meniscus against the Houston Rockets in the first round.
Fitted with a bulky knee brace, he clearly wasn't happy. But he was a winner.
That's because he'll forever be free of the criticisms about his tendencies toward rushed shots, one-on-one basketball and reckless play. OKC could have used all three of those things against Memphis.
Because the Westbrook-less alternative was so much harder to watch:
Next time somebody complains about Russell Westbrook's shot selection, remember: Nick Collison Iso Eurostep.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) May 16, 2013
Looking back, it's now much easier to understand why Durant never joined Westbrook's critics: He knew how much the point guard mattered to his own success, and the success of his team.
It's a shame that it took an injury for everyone to appreciate Westbrook's value, but now there's no questioning his worth to the Thunder.
There were a lot of questions from old-school basketball pundits when the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors earlier this year:
"How can a contending team think dealing its leading scorer is a good move?"
"Who'll take their crunch-time shots?"
"Doesn't Memphis value Gay's athleticism and ability to create his own looks?"
Well, there's no one answer that addresses all of those questions, but now that the Grizzlies have advanced to the 2013 Western Conference Finals by beating the Thunder (and morphed into a true contender), it's safe to say we've learned that old-school wisdom has had its day.
Gay's departure opened up a world of possibilities that shortsighted analysts and subscribers to age-old NBA cliches didn't foresee.
Offensive possessions that used to end with Gay's contested jumpers now terminate after Marc Gasol or Mike Conley has created a shot for someone else. The low-percentage looks Gay generated gave way to better ones, as the Grizzlies offense subtracted his ball-stopping tendencies.
Plus, Zach Randolph became a bigger part of the offense and the Grizzlies could put two floor-spacing shooters on the court at once. Z-Bo put up 28 points and 14 rebounds in Wednesday night's 88-84 Game 5 win.
Trading Gay was an unequivocal win for Memphis. More than that, it proved that the analytics have officially displaced the nonsensical reliance on outdated truisms about "shotmakers" and "alpha dogs."
When stats guru John Hollinger took on an executive role with the Grizzlies, it signaled a sea change in the NBA. Old-school thinking isn't just a "loser"; it's dead.