Bulls a star shy of being title contender

Surely there will be those who credit soon-to-be former Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro for the gutty run of his team, which pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers as far as you could push a club in a 4-1 series that the Cavs clinched Tuesday night with their 96-94 victory.

We all know the plotline by now. A team ravaged by injury, weakened by free agency and trade, and touched by controversy, with their beleaguered coach's fate hanging by a thread, defied the odds to even make the playoffs. And indeed, the Bulls did surpass expectations in taking Game 3 against the Cavs in Chicago and coming a rimmed-out shot or two from extending the series to a Game 6.

But here's the thing, and the only thing that matters as the franchise moves from that good ol' Point B to Point C. The Bulls were one great player short of having a realistic chance of not just beating the Cavs but actually challenging for the title. And they are now in position to do just that with approximately $21 million of walking-around money for offseason shopping.

Derrick Rose was brilliant in the Bulls' season-ender with 31 points and six assists; the indestructible point guard bounced around and off the Cavaliers to keep his team in the game, with help on this night supplied by Luol Deng's 26 points.

But as soon as LeBron James woke up from his weird slumber after scoring three points in the first half and attached himself to Rose in the fourth quarter, it was once again clear that these Bulls just aren't quite good enough to beat the best on a consistent basis.

While James bided his time and perhaps rested the right elbow that was so sore it forced him to shoot -- and miss -- a left-handed free throw with 7.8 seconds left in regulation and his team up by four, Antawn Jamison (25 points) was more than up to the task of taking over the game.

The Bulls, as the next-tier teams always are, were handcuffed throughout the series by officiating. The following plays spring immediately to mind: Shaquille O'Neal hammered Rose in the third quarter without a call; Rose didn't get the continuation call with the Bulls down one and 7:35 left in the game; and Brad Miller fouled out while trying to guard O'Neal in less time than it probably takes Shaq to tie his shoes in the morning.

Bulls rookie Taj Gibson also failed to get any benefits of any doubts, which is how it works in the NBA.

Joakim Noah also picked up his fifth foul with about seven minutes remaining; he was unusually careless with the ball to the tune of seven turnovers, finishing with eight points and nine rebounds (five short of his playoff-leading average).

Still, Noah called the series "lots of fun" and it seemed to be for his teammates, despite the stress they were supposedly under.

"I wish we could have kept it going a little bit more," he said, "but if you look at the big picture, we showed that we're going to get better and be a team to be reckoned with in the future."

They should be. And they should have a fighting chance with another star and a more experienced coach who figures out that trapping the best player in the NBA is best done before the fourth quarter of Game 5.

Del Negro will leave as one of only four Bulls coaches to take a team to the playoffs in his first two seasons. And he will leave with the image of taking the high road, since we may never know exactly what part he played in his undoing with Bulls VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman.

Perhaps that is the best thing that Del Negro will take away from this, coming away seemingly untarnished and perhaps as a martyr despite the fact that even without the controversy, any team should want to move on to the next level with a more accomplished bench coach.

Also consider the reactions of Bulls players to any and all Del Negro questions over the last several weeks and after the game on Tuesday night.

While perfectly respectful, each one politely danced around the topic when players seldom have any problem defending coaches they firmly stand behind.

"He's somebody who has always been on my side, always supported me, and I appreciate everything he's done for me as a player," Noah said in what already sounded like a goodbye-and-thanks speech. "He's the one who gave me the opportunity to play on the court."

Deng was similarly diplomatic if not evasive when asked about Del Negro's fate.

"I believe in this organization and that the organization will do what's best for the team," he said. "My job is whenever I'm in this locker room, whoever they put in charge and whoever's running this ... this is what players do."

Not exactly a rousing endorsement from Rose, either.

"It's up to the front office," he said. "I'm going to let them handle it and just deal with it."

He can only hope that come July, it will all be that much easier.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.