The Chicago Bulls saw their improbable playoff run ended by the Miami Heat last week. And while it might be tempting to dismiss their loss as a simple injury issue, there were deeper matters that led to their ouster.
For a team that survived on emotion and defense throughout the regular season, those emotions boiled over and the defense wasn't enough against a mighty team like the Heat.
Let's explore just exactly what went wrong in the Bulls' second-round loss to the Heat.
Giving up the boards
The Bulls won the first game in this series and nearly won the fifth game. In the middle games, the Bulls gave up a decided advantage that they had over the Heat.
They didn't dominate the boards.
The Bulls were an elite rebounding team during the regular season. With Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson they have one of the best frontcourt rotations in the East. Where they really excel is on the boards.
In the first game of the series, the Bulls crushed the Heat by 14 rebounds and in the fifth game they beat them by eight, including a nine-rebound advantage on the offensive glass.
During the middle games of the series, the Bulls were beaten by five.
There are plenty of reasons why this could be the case, but the biggest culprit was a lack of focus. The Bulls allowed themselves to get too emotional and this led to losing their focus on fundamentals.
The Heat didn't suddenly get better at rebounding. They simply allowed the Bulls to take themselves out of the game.
Don't believe me? Look at how many fouls the Bulls committed in the middle three games. They committed 57 in the first two losses and another 19 in their third loss. That is not a team that is playing under control.
Had they been able to play with controlled rage rather than emotional disruption, they could have kept their bigs on the floor and kept the rebounding edge intact.
For much of his career, Carlos Boozer has been considered an elite power forward.
His combination of power and touch have made him a double-double machine for years and have made him a lot of money.
But despite not having an elite defender guarding him for much of this series, Boozer seemed to vanish.
His effort in the rebounding department was atrocious, grabbing a total of eight in their first two losses.
Sure, he got off the rebounding slump in the fourth and fifth games with 12 and 14, but for much of the series he was pushed around down low.
He also didn't offer much in the line of scoring. Sure, the Heat keyed on the down low game as they grew less and less afraid of the drive, but Boozer never really looked for his shot.
The Bulls needed a dynamic scorer down low, but Boozer settled for bad shots or simply allowed himself to be taken out of the game.
For a guy who is earning serious scratch, this was a pathetic showing.
Injuries were critical
Just because injuries weren't the only issue, doesn't mean they weren't a big issue.
The Bulls' most underrated players all season were Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
Deng can score in multiple ways and provides points on the wing. He also has size to help disrupt on defense even if his athleticism doesn't always do him any favors at this point of his career.
Hinrich is a scrappy player who not only plays soundly with the ball in his hands, but is a pest on the defensive side of the ball. He also tends to hit big shots in the clutch.
These two players were critical to the success of the team throughout the regular season and the first round against the Brooklyn Nets. Deng led the team in scoring during the season and Hinrich led in assists.
And these two players missed the entire second-round series with the Heat.
A team that already isn't overly deep cannot afford to lose two starters and beat the defending champs.
And we haven't even mentioned the ongoing Derrick Rose saga that started out intriguing and ended up becoming a distraction.
Why exactly didn't the Bulls declare him inactive prior to the series? Were they hoping for a Willis Reed moment? Or did they just not know if he could be available?
At best it was annoying to the players, at worst it was a distraction and a warning about how their team feels about their talent.
The Bulls would have needed all of their players just to make a series with the Heat, but without them they really didn't have a chance.
Room to grow
The Bulls certainly need to keep their collective heads high after this series.
Few had them winning a game, much less the series.
The Bulls banded together and became the Bad News Bears of the NBA. Everyone was rooting for this band of misfits held together by a small but tough point guard in Nate Robinson and a big French guy with crazy hair in Noah.
They also saw plenty of their role players step up and hit big shots. Jimmy Butler played out of his mind at times and Marco Belinelli knocked down some big shots.
Overall, the Bulls saw their reserves and little-used players step up and come through.
The Bulls have a tricky off-season to maneuver but it certainly isn't impossible.
They have to make some tough decisions on personnel and will need a bit of luck to bring back all of their free agents.
Robinson appears to be a safe bet to leave town, but that exit will be more than made up for by Rose's eventual return.
Belinelli will have to give the Bulls a hometown discount in order to stay, but that isn't impossible.
The Bulls have tricky salary issues. Their top four players make a combined $60 million.
That being said, they do have options. They likely will choose to not pick up Rip Hamilton's $5 million option. They also have the option of using the Amnesty Clause to cut ties with Boozer if they get into trouble.
Overall, however, they should feel good about their future. They have all of their most important players locked up under contract for at least a couple more years, they have one of the best young players in the league in Rose and they just played a tough five-game series against the Heat despite being without several starters.
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