CHICAGO—However this series ended for the Chicago Bulls, it wasn’t supposed to be an unfamiliar script. The way it would go down, if it went down, began and ended with LeBron James, maybe with some help from Kyrie Irving. Fielding its own wealth of talent, Chicago’s stars were to be crossed by superstars. Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, warts and all, would battle to a final gasp in a game that could be the coach’s last.
Instead, we’ll remember the lethargy, a bizarre lack of resolve, that ended what had been a heavyweight fight of a series on an underwhelming note, as Cleveland eliminated Chicago in a 94–73 Game 6 rout. Chicago opened the series with a hard-earned road win, took Cleveland’s best punch in the second game, and was saved by Rose in the third. James took matters into his own hands to close the fourth and never stopped in five. It looked bound for an appropriately explosive finish, one way or the other.
But there were the Bulls, falling on their own sword. History will look back on the moments that shaped the series—bank shots and leg locks, ankles, knees and hamstrings, phantom timeouts and corner fadeaways. But just as easy to remember will be Chicago’s aimless finish in Game 6, against an opponent far from its best. The role players rewrote the scene with the Cavs' Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova closing the curtain.
A high-energy opening salvo from the Bulls seemed to set the game up for another whirlwind finish. Then, a careless, flagrant foul by Nikola Mirotic early in the second quarter triggered the Cavaliers, sending them on a 17-4 run to close the first half. Shumpert, the victim of the rookie’s errant clothesline, which ignited a brief scuffle, finished with 11 points in the quarter. That’s not to pin the result on one play, but things fell apart quickly for both teams with James out of rhythm and Irving nursing his knee on the bench in the meantime.
Cleveland’s point guard, whose scoring 25 points on injured legs was a quiet difference-maker in James’s dominant Game 5, never re-entered. Irving never had to. It took Cleveland six minutes to score its first points of the second half, but Chicago could muster only two of its own in that span. The course never changed.
“If you want to find an excuse you can,” Bulls coach Thibodeau said. “If you want to make good, you can. There's always a lot of adversity. It's the way you look at things. Being mentally tough through adversity is huge. I thought our team handled that part well.”
The puzzle Chicago fought and ultimately failed to complete all season had been equilibrium, achieving the consistency that it maybe had taken for granted. After three years of playoff fights without the talismanic Rose, why expect it to be different with him on the floor? This ending was unexpected, but perhaps it was the one the Bulls deserved, had been barreling toward all year. The window that looked wide open early in the series, with James struggling, Irving dinged, Kevin Love out, and J.R. Smith suspended, now is irrelevant.
“The team at times has shown great potential and high quality but we have to find more consistency,” Bulls center Pau Gasol said. “We have to understand a better sense of urgency throughout the year. Understanding how important every regular season game is.”
The recurring theme was that Chicago could never overcome its tendency to shoot inopportune blanks. “Who knows?” Derrick Rose replied when asked about the Bulls' shooting. “We’ve been trying to figure this out the entire year. We’ve had our ups and downs, trying to give you the best answers possible. I really don’t know. Hopefully when we come back we’ll have a different game plan, a different approach to how we play each game.”
[daily_cut.NBA]“We gotta figure it out,” Rose added, emphasis on the got to. His forward-thinking tenor characterized the tone around Chicago’s locker room. The biggest question mark for the future appears to be the status of Thibodeau, already being linked to vacancies. He said after the game he expects to be around until informed otherwise. The players deflected any talk of Thibodeau’s situation, likely playing coy. And though he received votes of confidence, there was a definite air of uncertainty.
“Thibs is a hard worker, somebody who’s always had us prepared,” Noah said. “Right now we don’t know what the situation is, anybody. [We have] a lot of great memories … it’s not my decision.”
The off-season makeover that changed the Bulls was conceived as cosmetic, was never supposed to alter the lifeblood of the bent-but-never-broken teams. Gasol replaced Carlos Boozer. Aaron Brooks became the latest Thibodeau point-guard reclamation project. Nikola Mirotic offered the type of scoring punch, though mercurial at best, that these teams had never had. But it could never quite find that defensive identity, the go-to-work every night style, the gospel according to Thibodeau. In the end, though it was the offense that largely failed them. The machine had lost its wheels.
Whatever happens to the coach, the end-of-an-era talk will be off-base. In all likelihood, Chicago’s off-season maneuvering will be minimal. Rumors tying Jimmy Butler to max contracts from around the country matter little, as the Bulls can match any offer. The blossoming of Butler as the big-time shooting guard alongside Rose remains the season’s greatest positive takeaway next to his backcourt-mate’s current, though tenuous, state of health.
Should Butler remain in place, the other question marks are Dunleavy and Brooks. Doug McDermott and Tony Snell are in line for Dunleavy’s minutes should he go. The annual revolving door of backup point guards would suggest Brooks departs. With everyone else still on the books, a first-round pick and the mid-level exception are the only discernable personnel cards for GM Gar Forman to play.
“I think when you have a team like this, it’s all about growing together,” Rose said. “You have your ups and downs, it’s definitely a down right now, but it’s all about just getting through it. I know we’ll bring it here one day.”
Maybe change comes in the form of a new coach, the question being what personality suits this locker room. It will, for the most part, be this same locker room. The opportunity to grow together remains, the window is not shut yet—Rose is 26, Butler 25, Mirotic 24—but the next step will be continuing that progression. Whether there’s ultimately enough there to get it done is a different matter.
Still, what-could-have-been won’t be going anywhere for the Bulls. The path to the Eastern Conference finals will continue to run through James. And perhaps the biggest mystery lies not with the fate of Thibodeau, but with this group itself, whether it can get over the LeBron hump. As long as Rose can stay healthy, there will be a sense of urgency, though he himself may not always realize it. Butler can help shoulder the weight, the faces can come and go. Even entering a pivotal off-season, the game and the stakes won’t change.