Bulls' Advertised Shortcomings on Full Display vs. Surprising Washington Wizards

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterApril 23, 2014

USA Today

We knew who these Chicago Bulls were coming into their first-round NBA playoff series against the Washington Wizards long before the former's 101-99 loss at the United Center on Tuesday.

We knew they'd be scrappy, as their 34-16 record since losing Luol Deng (in addition to Derrick Rose) would suggest.

We knew they'd play great defense after holding their regular-season opposition to 97.8 points per 100 possessions—the second-stingiest mark in the league, per NBA.com.

We knew that Joakim Noah, the league's latest Defensive Player of the Year, would dictate Chicago's flow on both ends of the floor.

We knew that Tom Thibodeau, a former Coach of the Year winner, would probably, if not easily, outwit Randy Wittman in whatever chess match emerged on the sidelines. Thibs' early, heavy and effective use of D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson off the bench in Game 2 served as a reminder of that.

But we also knew that Thibodeau's Bulls were full of holes ripe for exploitation.

Without Rose, Chicago lacked much in the way of on-ball creativity. Without Deng, wing scoring would be tough to come by. Without any clear advantages in size, skill or talent over the Wizards, the Bulls would have to lean with precarious weight on their intangibles, which, while worthy of applause, can't quite substitute for, say, shooting and ball-handling.

Now, we know that grit, toughness and desire alone probably won't be enough to save Chicago from what's looking more and more like the team's second opening-round ouster of the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls scratched and clawed their way out of an early 17-point hole and all the way to a 10-point advantage in the fourth quarter. But a three-and-a-half-minute scoring drought on Chicago's part allowed Washington to even the score at the end of regulation before the Wizards held on in overtime to put the Bulls down 0-2 in their first-round matchup.

Thibodeau, for one, understood that the Bulls couldn't afford to set themselves back in any significant way, lest they exhaust their already scant resources. 

And by "scant resources," I'm referring, of course, to the Bulls' inability to put the ball in the basket. However you slice it, Chicago's offense was nothing short of anemic in 2013-14. The Bulls converted the fewest field goals at the worst rate and scored the fewest points—the third-fewest per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com—of any team in the league.

In the opinion of ESPN's Michael Wilbon, such is the consequence of fielding an incomplete team, albeit one crippled by injuries and midseason departures:

You can defend and scrap to the heavens, and the Bulls do that as well as any team in the NBA, better than most of them. They're well coached and disciplined. But they're still only two-thirds of a team, limited and flawed when they have to play an opponent with a full deck. 

If anything, they were fortunate to "pile up" as many points as they did. The 47 points for which D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson combined off the bench might as well have been manna from heaven for the Bulls, starved for scoring amid Washington's own top-10 desert of a defense.

Chicago's third-quarter success came largely on account of what little penetration its guards could provide. The Bulls outscored the Wizards 26-14 in the period, with seven of their 12 field goals coming in the paint.

But Augustin and Kirk Hinrich could only fend off the dynamic duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal for so long.

Wall was a bit sloppy, particularly down the stretch, and didn't shoot particularly well (6-of-15), but he still managed to drive the lane and bend Chicago's vaunted defense when the Wizards needed him to most. Beal scored 11 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter. Had he nailed both of his free throws with under a minute remaining, these two teams might not have needed an extra five minutes to settle their score.

Not with Nene (17 points, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block) essentially playing Noah (20 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two blocks) to a draw. Not with the Wizards shooting a better percentage from the field, knocking down more threes (nine to five) and getting to the line more frequently (28 to 24).

If not for their massive advantages on the offensive boards (17 to eight) and in paint points (44 to 22), the Bulls may well have been blown out of their own building.

That's what makes this Chicago squad so endearing, though. It survives on energy and passion and sheer will. It fights for every bucket, dives after every loose ball, contests every shot and draws strength from every fiber in its collective being.

During the regular season, that was enough to win 48 games and snag a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. So far in the playoffs, that's been enough to keep Chicago close, to help the Bulls hang around until the bitter end.

But that end has, indeed, been bitter. Without some unforeseen turn of fortune in D.C. this weekend, that end will come much sooner than most expected it would.

Chicago has lost to Washington in three of its last four trips to the Verizon Center. Getting back into this series in tough territory will require that the Bulls once again squeeze Herculean efforts out of the likes of Augustin, Gibson, Noah and Hinrich, if not others as well.

In truth, we knew all along that the Bulls could be first-round fodder. It just took a couple of games to make plain that possibility.


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