CHICAGO -- They fought and struggled with every breath in their busted and wheezing bodies because this has become their overriding strength, their personality. This, over the last three seasons, is what their coach has convinced them they have to do. Tom Thibodeau stood in his familiar spot outside the Chicago Bulls locker room an hour before the game and said things that make no sense to the average person, stuff about "next man up" and "we have enough" despite being preposterously short-handed.
Luol Deng was too flu-ridden, Kirk Hinrich was too hurt, Taj Gibson was so flu-ridden he had the shakes 45 minutes before tipoff. Planting and jumping or planting and shooting was again virtually impossible for Joakim Noah, what with his plantar fasciitis. Yet, there was Thibs virtually daring his team to be anything less than good enough to beat the Brooklyn Nets in the moments before Game 6. "We've got a great group of guys," he said. "They've responded to every challenge. I don't expect tonight to be any different."
And in some ways it wasn't. The Bulls defended (the Nets shot 40 percent), they rebounded (46-41 on the glass), they scrapped and forced jump balls right down to the final 3.6 seconds. But pro basketball, more than all the other professional sports, is a talent league, a players' league. And if you're missing your best players in the NBA usually you lose, especially in the playoffs, which is the primary reason this series is going back to Brooklyn for Game 7 Sunday after the Nets' 95-92 win. And seventh games on the road are, historically, where dreams go to die.
If the Bulls spend any time lamenting what could have been they'll go back to the final three minutes of the third quarter when they got within 70-69 with 3 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. There was a sense that as well as Brooklyn had played -- they led by as many as 10 -- the Bulls could really wrestle emotional control of the game by simply taking the lead. But three straight possessions, down one, they had chances and failed. Again, in the fourth quarter, down 83-79, the Bulls had one chance after another but couldn't take the lead, couldn't tie the game, even though the Nets kept missing foul shots and layups, perhaps from the fatigue in the face of that withering defense.
But no matter how much stifling defensive a team plays, at some point scoring is requisite. But Nate Robinson swirled a layup, then was blocked by Joe Johnson. It was tantalizingly close to the stuff of fairly tales. But Marco Belinelli missed that 3, a pretty good look, with about eight seconds left and there was no miracle in Noah's forced jump ball. Yes, "next man up" can get you close, even in professional basketball. But you can't do much without your best players in the NBA playoffs. And the Bulls have found this out all too frequently in recent years.
Back in 2004, when Deng was a young pup, he and Eddy Curry -- remember Curry, when he could score like nobody's business and had all the promise in the world? -- missed a first-round series against the Wizards and the Bulls, for the first time ever, blew a 2-0 series lead. They didn't have enough players. They didn't have the player they needed last season either, of course, after Derrick Rose ripped up his knee. And they didn't have the players they needed once again this season, in Game 6.
Anyway, the Bulls couldn't find the basket enough in those final couple of minutes and it sabotaged another epic effort, as has happened several times the last three seasons. Effort the Bulls always have in abundance. Offense? They're challenged in that department, even with Rose on the court. It's amazing they almost make up for in effort what they lack offensively. Other coaches marvel. P.J. Carlesimo said afterward of the Bulls, "If there's a team that plays harder than them I don't know who it is."
Yet, it wasn't enough, perhaps because the starters (who outscored the Nets starters 85-68) had to play too many minutes; Jimmy Butler played all 48 and Belinelli played 46 and a half. Gibson played 18 minutes and in his sickened state gave the Bulls almost nothing off the bench. It wasn't enough, maybe because so many Bulls had to play unfamiliar roles which resulted, perhaps understandably, in a defense that had too many lapses that allowed the Nets too many unguarded layups and that couldn't produce enough turnovers (only nine). And because Carlos Boozer fouled out in just 32 minutes, on a night when the Bulls had no margin for that kind of error.
Going in, it seemed like a set of circumstances that might result in a Nets blowout, though since Game 1 it seems like the Nets are too low-energy to blow out anybody in an important playoff game. Carlesimo, nothing if not candid, said the one-possession outcome "amounted to making one more play than they did, or one more shot than they did, or one more free throw than they did."
And the natural question, that said, is whether Deng's return to the lineup can make a difference in Game 7. Don't count on seeing Hinrich again. His leg is bad. He's dragging that leg/foot around and we're talking less than 48 hours between Games 6 and 7. But the flu? Deng wanted to make a go of it Thursday night, tried to make a go of it. His name was in the starting lineup originally, while they were pumping fluids into him through an IV an hour before tipoff. Maybe Deng makes a difference if he'd been able to play 15 decent minutes, even if it just gave Butler a blow.
But Deng was, from all accounts, having trouble just standing up. (He was reportedly tested for viral meningitis earlier in the day, according to Comcast SportsNet; thankfully, those tests were negative.) When walking became problematic, Deng's name was removed from the lineup.
But the flu doesn't last forever. Perhaps it doesn't even last until Saturday. If the Bulls have to play without Deng and Hinrich on the road in Game 7 you can forget it; the Nets will be the team advancing to play the Miami Heat in the next round, which surely will bring a smile, privately, to the face of LeBron James. But if Deng can at least give the Bulls good, productive minutes and if Gibson can be healthy enough to go 20 minutes and do something other than foul out, then maybe that tenacity Thibs demands will result in something other than a close, season-ending loss and praise from Carlesimo.
We know that Thibs will talk about effort and resolve between now and Saturday. He'll tell the media, he'll tell his team. And since the Bulls have already had one clunker in the effort department this series (Game 1) the bet here is they'll play with as much determination as is humanly possible with the season on the line. But without every human resource available, Deron Williams, Johnson and Brook Lopez will be favored, at home, to win. And if the Bulls, who have fought the good fight with injuries and illness since the first of November, don't summon the proficiency on Saturday to match the effort, it will surely be an enormous disappointment.