- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Not exactly jolly on his best days, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau isn't one for being second-guessed after a soul-sucking playoff loss.
Preseason or postseason, his decisions might as well be carved in stone tablets, carried down from his Berto Center office for future generations to behold.
"Thou shalt not speaketh ill of my rotations. More than enough to win with-eth."
So, after a 101-99 loss to Washington that put Chicago in a 2-0 playoff series deficit, a reporter asked Thibodeau a perfectly logical question about fiddling with his rock-solid rotations after two woeful ends to two miserable losses. Thibodeau responded icily, "We look at everything."
Seconds of silence followed before he muttered, quite loudly, "Unreal."
Unreal is the wrong word. What looked like an unreal season could be coming to a very real end.
The worst scoring team in the NBA can't find a way to score late in the playoffs? You don't say!
The problem is the Bulls aren't defending that great either.
The Bulls led by 10 with seven minutes left Tuesday. In Sunday's 102-93 loss, they led by double digits midway through the third period. So they are getting better at squandering leads, I suppose.
This Bulls team is no mystery. Wins and losses are decided almost solely on effort, and that can ebb and flow given the situation. Don't tell Thibodeau, but these guys are human. But you can't always hustle the ball in the basket.
Thibodeau has earned the benefit of the doubt through four excellent-to-inspiring seasons, but if the Bulls find themselves struggling in the fourth quarter Friday in Washington, D.C., he's either going to have to come up with some offensive wrinkles or give up some defense to get sharpshooting Mike Dunleavy or even, gulp, Carlos Boozer on the floor.
Someone has to score late against a gutty Wizards team that is two wins from advancing into the second round and stealing the Bulls' dream of making the Eastern Conference finals.
Taj Gibson (22 points, nine offensive rebounds) and Joakim Noah (20 points) tried mightily Tuesday, but they need help to free them to chase offensive rebounds. Noah's point-center game has been nullified by the Wizards, and those two combined for six turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Are Dunleavy and Boozer the answers? I'm not sure Thibodeau will let us find out. Both were pulled late in the first quarter as the Wizards raced out to a double-digit lead. They combined for 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting in 48 minutes, 43 seconds.
I assume matchup problems on defense are the issue, but both guys can score and will shoot.
There is no real conundrum here. The Bulls are overachievers. This isn't the regular season anymore.
They have a room full of team-first basketball players, strong defenders, leaders and well-mannered men. But this is the NBA playoffs. They have only one dynamic offensive player and it's D.J. Augustin.
The sub-6-foot point guard revived his career and saved the Bulls' season after they signed him in December.
After a lousy first playoff game, he nearly saved Game 2 with 25 points and seven assists in 40:50 off the bench. He scored eight points in 2½ minutes in the first quarter, getting the Bulls back into what looked like a blowout loss in the making.
But the Wizards locked him up by putting 6-8 Trevor Ariza on him, and the Bulls couldn't free him for good looks.
Augustin went scoreless for his last eight minutes in regulation, missing three shots, and the entire 4:40 he played in overtime. He missed zero shots in the extra period because he didn't take any shots.
Once upon a time, we thought Jimmy Butler could be a moderately effective scoring guard. He played 53 minutes, or as you might call it, the entire game. But he went 2-for-9 from the floor.
Meanwhile, Kirk Hinrich played hero ball. Or anti-hero ball, as it turned out.
Hinrich has been a rock for this undermanned team all season, but he didn't have it, even at the line. He went 1-for-7 from the floor in the second half, and his missed free throw with two seconds left robbed the Bulls of a chance for an excruciating double-overtime loss.
That can't happen. Run Augustin through the thickets, bring in Nazr Mohammed to screen with bad intentions, do something.
Augustin's last basket, a 21-foot jump shot, gave the Bulls an 83-75 lead. The Bulls led 91-85 with 3:53 to go but couldn't score the rest of regulation.
"The fourth quarter and overtime are going to be different," Thibodeau said. "The intensity of the game changes at that time. You've got to be ready to respond, got to screen better, make quick decisions. They put Ariza on him. He did a good job, more size. You've got to make plays."
If you're into the power of positive thinking, the Bulls are at their best when everyone has counted them out. We had them toe-tagged and headed for the lottery when Deng was dealt in January.
The Bulls were downcast but not despondent as Tuesday night stretched into Wednesday morning.
"You go on the road and play with that 'dog mentality," Gibson said. "Now we have to go play with that 'dog mentality they came in here and played with."
Will that make a difference?
"To tell you the truth, I really don't know," Gibson said. "I just feel like we've got to get one. Go on the road, it's gonna be a hostile environment. We've been there before."
I wouldn't count out the Bulls just yet. But unless Thibodeau can help his players help themselves late in the game, it's going to be an early summer in Chicago.
After squandering two fourth-quarter leads late against the Wizards, the Bulls' playoff plight is looking "unreal."