PHILADELPHIA -- The enduring memory of the Bulls' season will be Derrick Rose grabbing his left knee in the first game of the first round of the NBA playoffs a week ago.
In that instant, the Bulls' championship dreams were dashed. The present and future king of the organization lay on the ground in agony.
Everyone on the team knew things would be different without Rose, but no one was quite sure just how much. That question was answered late Friday night, during the Bulls' second consecutive meltdown -- a Game 3 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Without Rose on the floor, the Bulls' offense imploded. No player could make a big shot when it mattered. The Bulls were just 6-for-25 in the final frame from the field and couldn't find any kind of rhythm offensively.
A game the Bulls had in their grasp -- leading by as much as 14 points in the final quarter -- slipped away.
"Every loss is a tough loss," an emotional John Lucas III said after it was over. "We had that game, we gave that game away."
To make matters worse, Joakim Noah, the heart and soul of the team alongside Rose, crutched his way out of Wells Fargo Center wearing an air cast after badly spraining his ankle in the third quarter. The fact that Noah returned for a couple of minutes at the beginning of the fourth quarter is an argument for a different day but is one that will undoubtedly rage on if Noah has to miss significant time with an injury. The indelible image of the curly haired big man hobbling out of the arena ranks right up next to Rose on the floor. In so many ways, Noah's injury represented the end of the Bulls' season just as much as Rose's did.
Many thought the Bulls would be capable of finding playoff wins without Rose. After all, they had already played 27 regular-season games without him, proving they could overcome most obstacles that stood in front of them.
While Thibodeau and his team were understandably crushed, the implication was that it was another injury they would have to work through. They'd done it before, they could do it again.
Problem was, when push came to shove on Friday, the Bulls didn't make any plays when they needed to without Noah on the floor. They rolled over. All the bravado and confidence they had displayed since Game 2 came crashing down.
Of course, Thibodeau tried to downplay the Noah injury as just another hurdle his team had to climb over.
"The thing is, injury is part of the game," Thibodeau said. "You have to have a mental toughness to get past all of that. We've had injuries all year and you just deal with it. If you look, you can find something every night, every game. Shorthanded, regular season, back-to-back, early start, whatever it is, or you can find a way to win. That's what you need. You need guys that have great will to win, and no matter what the circumstances are will find a way to win."
The Bulls showed their true colors on Friday, though. All their inadequacies came rushing to the forefront. The primary issue being that the Bulls don't have another primary scorer on the team.
Carlos Boozer had a nice bounce-back game, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, but when the Bulls needed a big shot down the stretch, he could not deliver. He went just 1-for-6 in the final 12 minutes.
Rip Hamilton, the player management had hoped would be the missing piece this season, went just 4-for-15 on the night. Luol Deng, the All-Star forward who needed to take on even more offensive responsibility without Rose, had his second bad game in a row, shooting just 2-for-7 from the field. Kyle Korver, the man who was brought in specifically to knock down 3-pointers in big games, missed all five of his shots. C.J. Watson and Lucas, the two guards the coaching staff had confidence in after Rose went down, were a combined 4-for-16, and none of the makes came from Watson, the man who started the game.
Noah's injury may not have just put an end to his own season, he put a cap on the Bulls' season as well.
Sure, the Bulls could bounce back on Sunday and win Game 4. They could even scratch another two wins at home and advance to the second round -- although that seems very unlikely if Noah is indeed out for a while. But any hope they had to go deep into the playoffs evaporated Friday night. Does anybody really believe that this team can win many more playoff games? The truth is that Rose's injury, and the ensuing struggles the Bulls have dealt with, only reinforce one thing: The Bulls are a flawed team.
They still don't have enough scoring to win when it counts, and they have a team full of guys who still haven't gotten over the fact that Rose isn't coming back anytime soon. Thibodeau spoke about the type of mental toughness he wants to see from his team, but they didn't deliver when he needed it the most. Obviously, the Bulls have dealt with more than enough injuries this season, especially in the past week, but that shouldn't excuse them from laying an egg in the second halves of two consecutive playoff games. Somebody should be able to step up and make a play, and time after time nobody does.
"It ain't going to be easy," Hamilton said of being able to bounce back now. "It ain't going to be easy, and as long as we stick to our game plan and stick to what got us here and don't try to go out of that realm, we should be fine."
The Bulls have talked a big game ever since Rose went down, but their actions have spoken much louder than their words. The Bulls aren't good enough to win without Rose, but the saddest part about his injury is that it revealed that the surrounding cast probably wasn't good enough to win with him. That cast might not even be good enough to get out of the first round anymore.