Last season’s and this year’s playoffs for the Chicago Bulls are marked by interesting semblances and contrasts. It is the contrasts however that prove to be more dramatic to the somewhat same, eerily wounded Chicago Bulls team.
Last year, they opened the playoffs with a win against the 76ers but lost their MVP pint guard to an injury and decisively turned the result of that first round match. After six games and crucial heartbreaking lapses in Game 6, they eventually bowed to the 76ers. This year, they opened the playoffs just like they closed the previous one, without Derrick Rose and with a loss. They were routed by the Brooklyn Nets in their home court and suddenly, at least for me, their chances are casted with a bleaky pall.
The next three games however, one of which was still played in Brooklyn and the two played in their home at Chicago, characteristically showed the kind of team this bunch of Chicago Bulls is and what they could achieve with their famed discipline and character. They limited the Nets to their worst shooting games of the entire season in Games 2 and 3 in order to seize a 2-1 lead. Once again, it proved that defense, on top of controlling the boards, is an effective weapon for the team-oriented Bulls who works together to pester their opponent’s rhythm in offense. Then in that one-of-a-kind Game 4, the Bulls erratically won by turning to their offense and specifically turning to perhaps their most erratic player, Nate Robinson. They went back from 14 down with less than three minutes on a scoring rampage by Robinson and then went in to force overtime. It took three overtimes before they eventually claim the victory with good defensive efforts and a key offensive board and putback by Nazr Mohammed off a Carlos Boozer free throw miss needed to finally pull away from the tough Brooklyn Nets. After that point, the Bulls had a seemingly comfortable 3-1 lead in the series and needing to win only one game out of the three remaining possible games to advance to the conference semifinals. But the Nets obviously had other plans. They won both Games 5 and 6, the latter just by a single possession, to force a do-or-die Game 7 on their home court. Notably, Kirk Hinrich sat out on Game 5 due to an injury, effectively eliminating an able defender to Deron Williams, one fot eh Nets’ top players. Worse, Luol Deng was also not able to play Game 6 because of another injury and so the Bulls were left not just without Derrick Rose, but also Hinrich, his backup and a vital cog in the Bulls’ defensive rotation, and Deng, another All-Star.
So Game 7 at Brooklyn, where Chicago will make a case against sheer talent being the most significant criterion in winning a basketball game , not to say a basketball playoff series, not to say a championship. With Rose, Hinrich and Deng out and with Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson suffering from illnesses but still playing through them, the Bulls wagered on the enormity of their hearts and their wills to secure the victory and finally advance to the conference semifinals against the Heat. The NBA announcer even called this Bulls team ‘the walking medical ward’ and yet they showed no signs of being fazed. Joakim Noah recording that double-double plus a play0ff career0high sic blocks; Marco Bellinelli rising to the occasion and stepping up in the absence of key players with his team-high 24 points; Jimmy Butler finally showing to get past the playoff jittery stage and playing for the entire 48 minutes of the game; and this entire Bulls team, covering and running after the Nets’ shooters, hustling for loose balls, deflecting passes and tipping in baskets or tapping the ball out for offensive boards.
On a Game 7, you discount talent. That should be a given for the case of both teams who have slugged out a heck of a series that needed a deciding game to see who advances and who does not. On a Game 7, what matters is heart and grit and determination and how well do you put those into court when the game begins until it ends.
Last Saturday, against the Nets, it was the Bulls who came out more passionate, more determined to extend not just their wonderful season highlighted by the precariousness brought by injuries, not to mention THAT injury nursed and being recovered from by Rose, but also their playoff stint where they continue to prove that winning can be done by a team who works and plays together and not rely on flashy superstars who make flashy moves.
So in anticipation of their semifinal series with the defending champion Heat (which actually already begun and which they won again, scoring an early upset), I continue to believe that this scrappy, gritty and team-oriented kind of play can stand a decent chance against the superstar-filled, ostentatious play of the Miami Heat. As we close out the sharp contrasts between the first rounds of the Bulls’ playoff stints last year and this year, we can move on and look forward to another good series against their brewing archenemy in Miami Heat. The operation of contrasts will be at the foreground again: it is Lebron, Wade and Bosh and their superstar statuses and capabilities versus the entire Chicago Bulls team willing to dive for loose balls, chase down shooters and pass the ball for open teammates and play together towards victory.
The Bulls are definitely the underdogs, just like they were against the Nets, and they are not far from stealing another against the Heat.