PHILADELPHIA -- After a season full of fighting through every obstacle in their path, a cold, hard truth hit Tom Thibodeau and his team square in the face Sunday afternoon. They no longer have more than enough to win with.
That's the message that came across loud and clear during the Bulls' 89-82 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. All the bravado and positive energy in the world can't erase the fact that the Bulls don't have enough playmakers on the floor to scratch out a close victory.
"It's not the way we thought the series would go a week and a half ago," Bulls guard Kyle Korver admitted. "It's a lot different situation for us but this is just the way it goes. This is why you play the playoff games."
The Bulls haven’t lost control in this series because of a lack of effort. They fought in attempt to even up this series and head back to Chicago with some momentum, but it wasn't meant to be.
Sunday’s fourth quarter didn’t feature a complete collapse. Still, the Bulls’ offense looked rudderless late in the game, failing to produce favorable field goal attempts in key situations.
C.J. Watson hit two key shots, but he missed five others in the final 12 minutes. Luol Deng, the team’s veteran leader, took and made just one. He scored nine points. Rip Hamilton, who was supposed to be the difference-maker for the Bulls this season, played 27 seconds in the fourth. Korver, who replaced Hamilton in the lineup, missed both of the shots he took.
In many ways, the end of Game 4 unfolded just like the end of Game 3, with the only difference that the Bulls hadn't built up a 14-point lead late. They couldn't make a play when they needed one most because Rose and Noah, the two biggest stabilizers on the team, weren't there.
"It's tough," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "It's tough, but we still have more ball to play. We're going back home, but it's tough. You look at it how we really work hard all year long and look at the situation we're in now is tough but we got ourselves in this situation. We can't blame anybody else but ourselves. We have to just go out there and continue to keep fighting."
But that's the problem the Bulls have run into over the past three games, especially late in the last two. All the determination in the world can't help when the talent disappears.
The Bulls talk like the series isn't over, but their late-game execution makes it tough to figure how they can keep the series going much longer.
"All year we're trying to get everyone healthy," Deng said. “Guys have been banged up all year, it's been a tough year in that aspect. But [we] always had the positive mindset. And guys were always rehabbing trying to get back and going into the playoffs we felt great about it. Now even though we've got people down, and we're down 3-1, the belief is still in here. We're still going to fight. We just got to take it a game at a time. We're still only down two games."
In Thibodeau's mind, the path back remains the same. His team must do a better job of executing and playing to its strengths. The issue for the Bulls is that their margin of error is so small now that any mistake late is magnified.
"We have to start better and we have to finish better," Thibodeau said. "The challenge is in the playoffs 48 minutes, that's what we have to do. In the end, it comes down to will to make the play. Whatever's necessary. Whether it's three stops in a row, three scores in a row, whatever you may need, that's what you have to get done. And I think that comes down to your mental toughness, your physical toughness, and the one thing about our team [is] I think we have great character. And I think the fight will be there."
The fight will be there, but at this point how much difference will it make?
When Rose went down, the Bulls said all the right things. They still think they can win and they still think they can advance in the playoffs. Since Noah’s injury however, something has changed. The Bulls quietly look like a team that has started to accept its fate.
They aren't going down without a fight, but they know they'll probably still go down either way.