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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Because when you're either of those things, being as good as the Chicago Bulls is good enough...


At the expense of mincing words, it's a known fact that anybody with internet access and an opinion is, by virtue, a sports expert. Those who don't throw their hat in that ring and prefer instead to wallflower it, are content to leave comments below articles and YouTube videos, smiting the literary world with their idiocy panache par excellence. That having been said, it takes a lot from an individual to be heard from amongst the considerable background noise. Consider my voice the gunshot in the saloon of popular opinion.

The Chicago Bulls were not as good as advertised. Period. Tonight's implosion was epic on a scale that can only be quantified by the fact that I was unable to make a turkey sandwich in the time it took for the home team to blow a twelve point lead. Though there's probably a metaphor which stands allegorical to some larger, more poignant meaning, I'm unwilling to derail my own train of thought for the time that would be necessary to discover it.

Though it might come as a surprise to those who would rush to point out that they did in fact win the entire NBA during the regular season, amassing an impressive 62 wins set against just 20 losses, the fact of the matter is that the playoffs are another season unto themselves, and the Bulls just couldn't hack it at all. I feel that their run to the Eastern Conference Finals was more a result of being matched against the perennially subpar competition as a whole that the East offers up for the final few playoff spots each year. Couple that with the fact that most of their regular season play came against such teams, and you have yourselves an interesting theory to look at.

Let me say up front that I am not big on numbers. While I respect the effort and time it takes to look into what all of these numbers supposedly reveal, the fact is that I consider reading about them to be a bore. I feel like if the numbers that stand beside each other in a particular team's win/loss column can misrepresent them, then numbers are not nearly as useful as one might make them out to be, especially when governing how a particular player plays in a particular situation. For that reason, I will not be mining for statistical ore in this article. Instead, we'll base it off of something which I think is far more telling. Tone.

Basketball, and indeed all sport in general, have much in common with music. In a musical composition, a listener might be treated to a variety of key, chord, and tempo changes, sometimes all within the same song. In much the same way, it is completely possible for one to take in a basketball game, and notice a team start slowly, yet finish strongly, completely defying the logic that the numbers have set in place. Likewise, and in the case of the Chicago Bulls, a team can come roaring out of the gate, ferociously and authoritatively setting the pace, only to soften like a rock ballad in the end.

Watching the series, I joked with a friend that the Bulls must have set some unofficial playoff record for consecutive bad possessions during crucial late-game moments. Without recalling any specific play (and with the luxury of not having to do so, due to the fact that there were so many), I can't tell you how many times the Bulls would bring it over half court with authority, only to stand around and run off just enough clock to throw up a garbage shot as time expired. The offense never had me on the edge of my seat, but to watch it during each of the post- game 1-meltdowns was a little more than simply disappointing. Nobody wanted the ball, and yet those same non-participants also didn't feel like making sure anything happened off the ball. Because I'm willing and because I can, let me just give you a quick rundown of all the culprits involved in not simply this latest, series clinching abomination of a collapse, but throughout the whole series in general.


Derrick Rose: If I'm going to throw my hat into the ring of personal opinion, I might as well make a point to roll out my red carpet on the reigning league MVP. Simply put, Rose was terrible in this series. After the Game 1 victory, Rose's confidence and ability flickered on and off like a cheap hotel room light. One minute, he'd blitz the free throw lane with mind-numbingly quick drives, only to stand around on ensuing possessions, as if he were waiting for a taxi. Usually, on the latter type of possession, he'd end up doing one of those Allen Iverson "Sorta Half Crossover Jab Step Fadeaway Jumpers" from the free throw line, with Lebron James being the chief defender on many of those exact types of shots that were taken later in the series. The difference between Rose and the namesake of the particular move on which he chose to rely when he didn't have anything productive to do, was that Iverson himself was actually a shooting guard. When AI put those shots up, at least you didn't think his position dictated that he might have been better off just passing. Rose however, seemed to be suffering from a case of Westbrook syndrome, putting up a disproportionate amount of misses to shots that actually went in. Though Rose can't be found guilty of having a superior player on the team like Westbrook does in Durant, the fact that he is a point guard means that he is supposed to find a way to get his teammates involved, no matter the circumstances.


Kyle Korver: What haven't I said about this guy. In a way, I almost feel bad, because I spent a large portion of Games 2 and 3 ragging on him each second he was on the floor. It wasn't anything personal, just the fact that he, a shooter, managed to go an entire playoffs without once performing his job even marginally well. If any of us went into our jobs for a month straight and were not only unproductive, but counterproductive at each appearance, we would be fired. No questions asked. While I'm certainly not calling for the head of Korver by any means, I feel it's entirely necessary to point out that he spent large and very unnecessary amounts of time on the court, with which he wasn't manifesting any popular methods for winning basketball games. If you exclude the fact that he's typically an ace shooter (shooting 41% career for threes), none of the traits which followed would read "defensive specialist". Since basketball is indeed a two way sport, with the same players often being forced to play both ways (unless you are Tracy McGrady), one would rightly assume that defense of a team's own basket would be paramount. With Korver on the court though, the Bulls were essentially playing man-down basketball each time the Heat had the ball. Though Korver wasn't being consistently lit up, he managed to be directly on the receiving end of several key baskets that triggered Heat wins, none being bigger than his failed switch onto Lebron James in Game 2, when Lebron hit a deep three to break a tie late in the game. Since I pretty much dedicated an entire article to that one particular five minute stretch of Game 2, let me simply say that Korver is a shooter. If he is going to be on the court and not receiving the ball to shoot, then he doesn't need to be on the court at all. The Heat are offensively talented enough without the Bulls giving them a power play every time Korver has to check somebody.


Carlos Boozer: I have to be frank and say that this guy has always just kind of irked me. Having watched quite a bit of him when he was in the Western Conference, I became uncomfortably familiar with his propensity to simply shut off at times. Though I never complained when he was playing against a team that I wanted to win, it's odd to see a guy enforce upon himself so strictly these types of self mandated cooling periods that Boozer seems to always have handy. He has a fairly dependable mid range shot, and is quite obviously powerful enough to get most places on the court that he'd like to go, and yet at times he'll seemingly exclude himself from the game. Seeing as how neither Joakim Noah or Luol Deng are viewed as offensive threats, Boozer, one would naturally assume, looked ripe for filling the role of secondary offensive threat, behind Rose. As a bonus for Rose, having a threat down low gives him an opportunity to conserve energy while working without the ball. Unfortunately, this dynamic never really materialized, and though Boozer didn't have a bad playoffs by definition, the look he had on his face while he was playing with his children after the Game 4 loss signified at least a partial realization that Miami wasn't buying whatever he was selling, unless he was flagrantly fouling Chris Bosh in order to spark runs and otherwise get in his own way.


Luol Deng: How much bad can you say about a guy who's been asked to effectively hogtie a rodeo bull. Stopping Lebron James is one of those statements that is simply a complete manifestation of irony. Though he can be frustrated and delayed, Lebron is just one of those players that is eventually going to get everything that he wants on the basketball court. Tasking Deng with containing him was like one of those military operations that's just doomed to fail from the start. Like when Bruce Bowen was asked to stop Kobe back in the "old days", you simply hoped that he'd get Kobe to look so long for a shot that any miss would leave the clock with few less seconds shown, and try to win by attrition. That having been said, Deng certainly didn't provide much of an offensive punch to go with the defensive task he was being forced to live up to. In a game where good offense will beat great defense nearly every single time, the players on the court need to at least be able to pull their own weight offensively. Whereas Bowen was technically sound with the corner three, Deng appeared more willing to not attempt a shot unless it had a degree of difficulty of about 30.5 out of a possible ten. The amount of times he threw these twisting, awkward, set shots after charging into the middle of a zone defense were quite simply mind blowing. Despite the fact that this was, itself, a result of the Bulls' relative ineptitude on offense, it's just one of those shots that a coach never wants to see. For them to have occurred at a professional level, and more than several times each game, has to be labelled inexcusable.


Joakim Noah: Another of the Bulls whom it's hard to say much bad about, Noah is a high energy player who looks to play each play as if it's his last. Despite the fact that every team wants to have a player like Noah somewhere on there bench, it's difficult to overlook the non-existence of his offensive game in a series where the Bulls were doomed by their inability to score points down the stretch. Though this presents a paradox of sorts, with Noah's high octane brand of hustle basketball being something that was undoubtedly essential to the Bulls' impressive season, knowing his offensive limitations casts an even greater shadow on the rest of the players' scoring difficulties. I'm a fan of great defense, and will most readily assure you that Miami has a very quick reacting one to accompany their particular brand of offense, but I'll also say that in the NBA, where people play basketball professionally, you've simply got to find a way to score. My other gripe with Noah is not one on him directly, but the coaching staff in regards to him. Noah, being that type of ultra high energy player, is one who needs to be on the court at nearly all times. Though I can't realistically expect him to play a full 48 each game, the reality is that he has to come awful close. One of Noah's intangibles is how effectively his hustle can wear down an opposing team. The NBA is a league filled with "half-steppers", and for them, seeing a guy who goes 200% every possession, on both ends of the floor, is draining and demoralizing. Quite simply, the longer Noah is on the floor, the greater the Bulls' chance at he or another player exploiting a lapse by an opponent.


Bench: The Bulls' bench provides nearly the same type of problem that Noah poses. It's full of hustle players who are capable of making plays simply through sheer effort, but features no player that can be counted on to provide a scoring punch worthy of spelling Rose, Deng, or Boozer. Granted, none of the aforementioned players had a particularly amazing series, but a large part of that was due to the fact that they were simply asked to do too much in the face of the Miami assault. One of the luxuries that entails Miami's big three is that James and Wade are relatively tireless players among an entire league of astounding athletes. If a team expects to stop them, they have to have a full tank of reserves who can be depended upon to provide some scoring punch while the starters recuperate. Neither Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, or Kurt Thomas can be legitimately asked to do this. Though Gibson and Asik are players in the mold of Joakim Noah, players who can very effectively wear on an opponent, they are players you can wholeheartedly be expected to fill up the basket. Aside from Gibson's array of Game 1 dunks, neither one provided very meaningful offensive minutes. Kurt Thomas, a 16 year veteran, did not play until Game 5, when he managed to provide Chicago with a verity of savvy plays that come from spending those years in the league. Brewer, who came into the Playoffs missing nearly every three pointer he took during the season, presented his version of heroics late in Games 4 and 5, hitting several threes that ended up almost being enough. Still, Brewer's presence is, again, not one which leaves coaches, fans, or opposing teams with the feeling that he could go off for 8-10 points in short spurts. Chicago's complete lack of role-playing bench scorers left them wanting at the absolute worst times, as late game collapses were centered around an all around inability to put points on the scoreboard. Couple that with the fact that Keith Bogans seemed entirely more focused on riling up players far beyond his own ability level, and you have the recipe for general unpleasantry, if not sheer disaster.


Coaching: In being as objective as is humanly possible when critiquing something of which I was not a part, it bears mentioning that many of the instances I've spoken about are a direct result of the scarcity of resources. Tom Thibodeaux is a coach, and coaches are expected to make the best of the tools they possess, players who in turn are expected to do the same with their own skill sets. In that light, one can hardly heap any mountain of blame on Thibodeaux, as he was just making the best use of the players that were available to him. At that point though, it becomes less about which team you're able to field, and more about how you use those players. As noted in the section above where I talked about Kyle Korver's minutes, one of the series defining plays occurred late in the game, during a stretch in which Korver should not have been on the court. It was well known by that time that his shot was off, and that reality effectively renders a player like Korver useless, as the likelihood of him coming up with a crucial block or steal is not a reputation he's managed to gain in his years in the league. Keeping in constant with that particular stretch of Game 2, there was a large portion of time where Boozer and Noah were on the bench while this offensive stagnation well underway. Like I mentioned in my dissertation of that stretch in my "Energy Supplements" post, it is up to the coach to eploy those players when a moment is there for the taking. Though hindsight is always 20/20, the reality of any hotly contested matchup is that when you have the chance to seize the victory and knock your opponent out, you must pull out each and every stop that could prevent you from doing so. That inability, whether it comes from unawareness or sheer unwillingness, often ends up sealing your fate, and not your opponent's. Very few teams or individuals exist that can rely on sheer talent to get them out of the tightest scrapes, and the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls weren't one of them.

At the end of the day, so much of this comes down to the fact that the Bulls were a young team that was matched up against a Miami Heat team that is pressing a hard case to not be denied. Despite the fact that this is a vastly talented and relatively experienced Heat team, the Bulls are not without their own experience and talents. This was not a case like what the Oklahoma City Thunder team encountered. They were a young team that lacked any real semblance of experience. The Bulls collectively have quite a bit of it. The players have been on deep playoff runs, whether or not it's Noah having done it with these Chicago Bulls, or Boozer, formerly doing it with the Utah Jazz. Kurt Thomas may actually be able to make a legitimate claim to having been in more playoff games than any two players from the Bulls and Heat combined. The point is that what felled the Bulls was not any collective lack of experience. Not discounting the value of such experience, but it's not as if Chicago suddenly became confused and forgot that the object was to win games. They simply became confused as to how to accomplish that, and that is precisely what did them in.


20 ft vertical Scottie and Stationary Horace? If only, Chicago... If only...