Commentary

Collapse could have lasting impact

Weird things happen after losses, and it could get really weird with a 76ers' upset

Updated: May 3, 2012, 7:00 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- It is not likely to spark any great shock should the Chicago Bulls end up succumbing to the Philadelphia 76ers in their first-round series and fade out of these NBA playoffs.

Nationally, the news cycle might not even last 24 hours for the team that lost its franchise player to a devastating knee injury in Game 1, then was defeated with a guy named C.J. Watson taking his place. And even locally as some people actually dumped their playoff tickets and other more sane fans quickly predicted doom, there is likely to be a sense of inevitability along with the disappointment.

[+] EnlargeLoul Deng
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bulls need Luol Deng to rebound from a 3-for-12 shooting performance in Game 2.

But a first-round elimination by the Bulls, currently tied 1-1 after an embarrassing home loss in Tuesday's Game 2, should spark shock and, locally, it should cause outrage. And more than that, early elimination by the Bulls, coupled with Rose's injury, may well have long-term implications for a franchise, its players and a head coach whose prospects only recently seemed unquestionably positive.

For Tom Thibodeau, whose 2011 NBA Coach of the Year distinction was built on a system predicated on team basketball with defense, rebounding and the consistent hard work it requires to pull it off, a collapse to an inferior 76ers team is likely to have a resounding impact.

Make no mistake, as terrific a tactician as Thibodeau is and as good a motivator as he may be, he needed every player to buy into his philosophy. It helped that his best player, Derrick Rose, did this unconditionally. But whatever the source, this attitude spread through the ranks and was reinforced when the team was able to win even without its stars.

An embarrassing first-round loss, which this one would be in whatever manner it occurred, may make it that much tougher for players to wholeheartedly buy into the system next season, when it could continue to be tough-sledding without Rose the first few months at least.

Will it also make it easier for the Bulls to think twice about offering a contract extension to Thibodeau that he will find acceptable? Thibodeau reportedly has been dismayed that he has not yet received a suitable offer after signing a rather modest two-year contract with a team option when he joined the Bulls.

Should the Bulls be eliminated in the first round after the league's reigning MVP sustained a serious injury under circumstances some thought the coach could have avoided, future relations between team management and Thibodeau could get sticky.

Weird things happen when teams lose, and it's not always fair. Management overreacts. Public opinion is affected.

Suddenly, management is questioned anew for the Carlos Boozer signing. He was supposed to make a difference.

And how about Rip Hamilton, the difference maker, it was hoped, healthy enough to be back in the starting lineup but not good enough to have played in the fourth quarters of the first two playoff games?

A first-round fade and a Bulls bench once considered an impenetrable mob is thought of as the individual pieces.

The way the Bulls -- who possessed the best record in the NBA in the regular season -- lost in Game 2 and seemingly gave up late, called into question the very character of the team and its leaders. It's that fragile a proposition.

Should they fail to return to form for Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia, it can have a damaging impact on all the progress a player like Deng has made over the past few seasons. Despite a serious wrist injury, Deng performed to an All-Star level this season, coming through time and again when the team needed him most. But playoff performances leave the strongest impressions and Deng, who had eight points on 3-of-12 shooting with five rebounds in Game 2 and has been generally outplayed by Andre Iquodala, needs to pick the team up in Philadelphia.

"We've been through it before, we've been through tougher things than this," Deng said Thursday. "I know how everyone cares. We have a team of fighters, and we'll fight our way out."

There's no great scoop in reporting that the Bulls need to get back to defense and rebounding," Thibodeau said. "That's the whole key."

"Our starters didn't play well and our bench didn't play well. You're looking at everything."

What the Bulls do have going for them at this point is that the series is only two games old. And that their expectations are higher than ours.

"The playoffs are tough, it's going to be hard-fought," Thibodeau said. "You have to have mental and physical toughness. There's no one feeling sorry for us. You just have to be ready to go the next game. Just take it step by step.

"And the only thing that matters is what we think."

If only it was that easy.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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