NBA Playoffs: Will There Be Glory or Growing Pains for the Chicago Bulls?

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIMay 13, 2011

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 12:  Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls reacts after drawing a foul from the Atlanta Hawks with Joakim Noah #13, Carlos Boozer #5 and Keith Bogans #6 in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Phillips Arena on May 12, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the start of these playoffs, there was a buzz going around about the Miami Heat, the L.A. Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.  Despite owning the NBA's best record in the regular season, I was stunned with the lack of focus that seemed to be emanating toward the Midwest. 

Then again, maybe speculation about age, experience,  and those proverbial "earned stripes" caused a bit of hesitation. You'll have to forgive me as my history as a "Bulls enthusiast" only saw success.  I wasn't even ten years old when the Pistons dominated the NBA as the "bad boys." Perhaps I was biased/ naive/ over-eager in this first real opportunity since the two-peat of the three-peat, inspired by Rodman rebounds and Jordan jumpers in eras more long gone than they seem. In my eyes, the Bulls were the focus heading into these playoffs. 

Sometimes, you have to put your money where your mouth is.  One thing that basketball tournaments have on any other sport is that they are a straight bracket, with no re-seeding.  As such, the bracketology makes for a clean competition for anyone willing to put their predictions to the test.  As always, I decided to donate my $5.00 to the annual "try your luck and watch your best friend's girlfriend's manicurist who hasn't watched a sporting event since her ex-boyfriend played pickup basketball at the local recreation center win your money" NBA pick 'em competition.

Bulls over the Warriors.  That was my selection.  My logic was that the Heat had struggled against teams that featured big men, so naturally they would be ousted from the Celtics.  From there, a young Bulls team would defeat Orlando or Atlanta (I picked Orlando) and their young, energetic legs would win a tight series against Boston

In the West, Dallas could be counted on to choke against the Lakers. That same L.A. team seemed off all season, and the Spurs had backed into the finals. So the up-and-comers from Oklahoma's fine capital city earned a trip to the 2011 Joshua Hayes Imagination Finals that Never, Ever Happen.

Instead of over-analyzing things, I should have known better.  In the NBA, it's the "talk of the town" that wins the big prize seemingly every year.  When the tri-annual Tim Duncan worship commences, the Spurs hit their stride in April.  When Boston transitioned from lackluster squad to contender overnight (finally putting a team around Paul Pierce), the Celts took home the hardware. 

And, now, in the midst of one of the most controversial relocations in NBA history, Lebron James and the Miami Heat seem prepared to dash the hopes of anybody who dares to try and get in their way.  I can't stand the idea of the Heat winning the NBA Championship, so in hindsight, they should have been my selection.

The problem wasn't just with my analysis.  Growing up in the 1990's, I came into maturity in the midst of Jordan-mania years, well after the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls struggled to get by those "Bad Boy" Pistons.  Maybe my mind didn't want to consider a Bulls team making it this far only to fall short.  If that had been the case, maybe I wouldn't have been so certain the Bulls were going to win that Game 6 in Utah in 1998.  Perhaps I may have hesitated seconds before Jordan stripped the ball from Karl Malone and the mailman saw the stamp ripped off of the Jazz's aspired special delivery. 

I could hardly be blamed for my notion of Air Jordan (Heir Jordan, to those most faithful) as an invincible force who could not ever lose on the grandest stage.   This is what I knew:

1998 — defeated New Jersey, 3-0, first round
        defeated Charlotte, 4-1, conference semifinals
        defeated Indiana, 4-3, conference finals
        defeated Utah, 4-2, NBA Finals

1997 — defeated Washington, 3-0, first round
        defeated Atlanta, 4-1, conference semifinals
        defeated Miami, 4-1, conference finals
        defeated Utah, 4-2, NBA Finals

1996 — defeated Miami, 3-0, first round
        defeated New York, 4-1, conference semifinals
        defeated Orlando, 4-0, conference finals
        defeated Seattle, 4-2, NBA Finals

1993 — defeated Atlanta, 3-0, first round
        defeated Cleveland, 4-0, conference semifinals
        defeated New York, 4-2, conference finals
        defeated Phoenix, 4-2, NBA Finals

1992 — defeated Miami, 3-0, first round
        defeated New York, 4-3, conference semifinals
        defeated Cleveland, 4-2, conference finals
        defeated Portland, 4-2, NBA Finals

1991 — defeated New York, 3-0, first round
        defeated Philadelphia, 4-1, conference semifinals
        defeated Detroit, 4-0, conference finals
        defeated LA Lakers, 4-1, NBA Finals

In Chicago, though, I often wonder if there was any hesitation about that last grand day for the Bulls.   Were they as confident trailing in the waning seconds in Salt Lake as I was?  I had no concept of losing, but surely they had to remember to some degree the journey before everything went right.

Or maybe five years of consecutive championship basketball told them as surely as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West that the Eastern Conference Bulls would rise once more and set the Western Conference Jazz back in their place.  Either way, that night ended a great era.  Jordan "retired," my best friend and I had no idea how spoiled we were to have seen that caliber of basketball, and the Spurs would soon bore us to collective tears.

Last night, a new team of young hopefuls played for an opportunity to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since his greatness graced the hard court.  Joakim Noah.  Carlos Boozer.  Derrick Rose (MVP- remind you of anyone?).  For the first time since the dynasty years, the Bulls have more to play for than a sympathetic invite for a .500 to perform the honorary first course to an NBA elite (see Chicago's recent playoff history).  A decade after the Jerry Krause debate, fans can be excited again.

It wasn't until 1991, after years of playoff setbacks, that Jordan finally overcame the disappointments of prior playoff seasons, elevating his team to the summit in a surprisingly dominant win over the Magic Johnson-led L.A. Lakers. As the Bulls of today prepare for the Miami Heat, the chapter has yet to unveil itself as to whether or not Chicago will finish with a crowning moment or a necessary growing pain.

As excitement builds in anticipation of the championship chase, Bulls fans are now embracing a new, exciting era in their team's annals.  Nevertheless, I don't think even the most responsible fan can resist the comparison as they look forward to the remainder of the NBA playoffs:

  • Will Chicago win the 2011 NBA Championship?
  • Or....will the Bulls play out like the dynasty teams and find a steely resolve tempered through disappointment, heartache, and yearly determination?
  • Or.... and this must be asked, will the Bulls of this generation bring a seventh all?

Finishing with the best record in the NBA, hope is very much alive for a full return to glory in Illinois. It's difficult to determine what the future holds, so it's wise to simply appreciate today.  And, today, the Bulls are bound for a conference finals matchup with the Miami Heat, a team with the type of love-hate following that a former Bulls' thorn, the Detroit Pistons, boasted in the days directly preceding Chicago's dynastic run.

The Heat seem to be finally firing on the cylinders that were ascribed to them by so many prognosticators in the preseason.  While my bracket pre-playoffs carried the Bulls into a Seventh Heaven, the path to the Finals has proven to be as incorrectly charted on my entry as Columbus's 1492 voyage.  In truth, I did not anticipate a Miami team with so much momentum to be blocking the path.

In the here and now, my gut tells me to expect the most annoying ending possible.  My stomach churns as I anticipate "close with no cigar;"  I'll keep no secrets about my annoyance with Lebron James' classless offseason antics and self-promoting series of events.   So, I hope I'm wrong.

But like the Bulls and Pistons in the late 80's and early 90's, the potential for great basketball is in place for years to come. Is this the next great Eastern Conference rivalry?   It would be foolish to draw parallels and predict any sort of dynasty.  Or a title.  Not so fast. This Bulls team is still not mettle-tested.

But, who knows? Why not get excited?

Maybe Seventh Heaven is just around the corner.

Now that we know what hurdle Chicago has to overcome the question is clear:  Will Lebron, Wade and Bosh prove to be the Thomas, Rodman, and Laimbeer of this new generation?  Is this the failure the Bulls will have to endure to later propel to the Finals? Or, are the parallels unnecessary, with tomorrow here today and a new championship chapter days away?

I never knew anything but postseason success in Chicago, but other Bulls fans know very well the pit stops that are often necessary on the road to greatness....