It was impossible to imagine just a week ago, in the euphoria of beating Miami to take a three-game lead at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, that the Chicago Bulls would be in a bit of trouble going into the playoffs.
But they are.
It's not the loss Thursday night in Miami that has suddenly put the Bulls in peril. The Miami Heat, playing at home, should have beaten the Bulls with or without Derrick Rose, particularly with the top seed in the East still out there to be claimed. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with splitting four regular-season games with Miami, especially since Rose didn't play in two of them and didn't produce much of anything in a third.
It's losing to the unspeakably bad Washington Wizards on Monday, at home no less, that unexpectedly put the Bulls in the spot they're in now. Had the Bulls beaten the Wizards, the team with the second-worst record in the NBA, they would have essentially secured the No. 1 seed in the East.
Look, I get it; coming off the emotional victory over Miami a week ago the Bulls were emotionally drained and surely tired. They were lucky to get into overtime and past the putrid Detroit Pistons on Sunday night in Detroit. That near-disaster should have been a wake-up call, but it wasn't.
You can look at the entire NBA schedule, going back to the opener on Christmas Day, and not find any worse loss this season than the Bulls' loss to the Wizards. Even if the Wizards are better in the wake of dumping knuckleheads JaVale McGee, Nick Young and losing Andray Blatche to injury, the Bulls should never have lost a game at home to these Wizards.
Don't get me wrong, the Bulls have taken fewer bad losses than any other team in the league over the past two years because they come closer to fulfilling their potential night-in, night-out than any other team in the league. The Bulls have precious few clunkers. They grind and scrap and persevere better than anybody, better than the Spurs or Oklahoma City or the Lakers. And certainly better than Miami. But the Wizards loss was an unforgivably awful and lazy slip-up, given where they are in the season and what's at stake.
Nearly as bad was Rose and Luol Deng missing four foul shots against the New York Knicks when one lousy free throw in the final seconds would have won that game in Madison Square Garden. One free throw and/or a loss to the Wizards might very well cost the Bulls the No. 1 seed. Maybe it was foreshadowing, that the Bulls had finally gotten tired or their will wasn't what it had been all season.
Whatever the case, after fighting through all sorts of difficulties for 60 games, the Bulls gave a game to the Wizards and now find themselves ready to relinquish the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Instead of simply getting ready this week to start the playoffs against free-falling Philadelphia, the likely No. 8 seed, the Bulls find themselves having to go to Indianapolis on Wednesday to beat their primary rival for the No. 1 seed. The Pacers would like nothing more than beating the Bulls, and if they were predisposed to resting their starters in their regular season finale, they might be otherwise inclined now.
If Miami runs the table (Two games against the Wizards: check. One game at Boston where the Celtics have nothing tangible to play for: check.) the Bulls will have to beat Dallas and Indy. And right now, truth is the Bulls aren't playing well enough to win both those games, if either. The Pistons took them to OT; the Wizards took them out; Rose is still hurting.
If the Bulls can't beat Indy, they're probably looking at finishing No. 2 in the East and having to go through the Knicks and Pacers to reach the conference finals instead of going through Philly and Boston. You think this is a small detail? It ain't. Last spring, by earning the No. 1 seed, the Bulls played a Pacers team that finished below .500 and then underachieving Atlanta. The Bulls should be looking at sweeping Philly and a Boston team they match up with very favorably.
Just a week ago the Bulls, coming off the dramatic victory over Miami, looked every bit as good as the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, Celtics and Heat. What a difference a week and one bad loss make. Now, it's fair to wonder for the first time whether the Bulls have what it takes to even get past the Knicks.
You can say, "If Derrick is healthy " but it shouldn't provide any solace, because he isn't. It looks like he won't be healthy this season. It happens. You just hate to see it happen now because the Bulls, all things being equal, are as good as the other five serious contenders (Heat, Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, Thunder), maybe better. They're as smart, as resourceful, as well-coached, as deep, as disciplined as anybody.
But in the playoffs, you have to have your star player being a star to play deep into the postseason. And beyond accepting it on blind faith, nothing that has happened so far this season suggests that Rose will be able to play the entire playoffs. Hell, how do we even know Rose will be on the floor to start the playoffs?
With Rose playing up to last season's standard, the Knicks would have no chance in a seven-game series. Without Rose or with him diminished, it's 50-50 against the Knicks, who are actually better without Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire. With the Knicks, more isn't better. Against the under-the-radar-but-very-talented Pacers with a diminished Rose? It would be a struggle, to say the least, perhaps a losing one.
What makes the Bulls such an appealing team is that they have played with such effort, intelligence and resourcefulness virtually every single game the past two seasons. What gives some NBA folk pause when it comes to picking the Bulls is that very same effort and intelligence covers offensive weaknesses during the regular season but not in the playoffs.
Against Miami on Thursday, in a game that had playoff contentiousness, the Bulls scored a season-low 72 points. They couldn't manufacture effective offense without Rose. He's the only above-average creator of offense, the only one who can get the Bulls easy baskets without help against great defense. Remember, Richard Hamilton is still trying to play himself into midseason form and Deng's left wrist is busted and almost certainly needs surgery. When Deng has one of those 1-for-8 shooting nights, it's the wrist, silly.
So, you've got three of the team's four most accomplished offensive players (Boozer is the other one) ailing, and the Bulls going stretches where they miss 9 of 10 shots, or 10 of 11. They look like the Bears, a team hoping nasty defense and forcing turnovers will facilitate scoring. It's not enough, not deep in the playoffs.
Again, I'll take a healthy Rose, healthy Deng and healthy Hamilton and go up against any of the other top five teams in these playoffs. But they're not healthy, and there's no promise they'll get there, even if they get past the Knicks in the first round.
Instead of fine-tuning in the final days of this insane regular season, the Bulls now have to regroup. The good news is nobody is out for the remainder of the season, as is the case with Orlando's Dwight Howard and the Clippers' Chauncey Billups. Miami got Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem back just in time last May for both to make a huge difference in the Eastern Conference finals. And we know that the Bulls have played enough combinations of players because of the injuries to have a calm about them no matter the circumstance. In the bigger picture, the fact that the Bulls have the best record in the NBA is something of a basketball miracle, and why Tom Thibodeau may win coach of the year an unprecedented second straight time.
Still, a cloud of vulnerability is threatening, and the forecast isn't as sunny as it was a week ago, when earning the No. 1 seed seemed a formality. Every day, beginning Saturday at United Center against Dallas, promises to be a nail-biter. But truth is, that's when the Bulls have been at their best. And if the past few days are any indication, drama, welcome or not, is going to be a constant companion the rest of the way.