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PHILADELPHIA -- Omer Asik was having the game of his life, until ...
The Chicago Bulls were seconds from Game 7 at home, until ...
The Bulls really did have more than enough to win with, until ...
Until they didn't. Until it was over. Until the Bulls were a top seed toppled by injuries, mistakes and dumb luck.
After the final buzzer sounded, there was confetti, loud noises and a No. 9 standing on the scorer's table cheering with the fans. And no, it wasn't Luol Deng.
The Bulls didn't just dream of winning a championship this season; they also worked hard for it. They sacrificed for it. They literally bled for it. They listened to a screaming coaching maniac every day for it.
But in the end, they didn't come close. Losing in the first round was unimaginable before Derrick Rose tore his anterior cruciate ligament. It was unlikely until Joakim Noah went down with a bad ankle sprain. Then, it became inevitable. From Larry O'Brien trophy dreams to becoming the fifth No. 1 seed to lose to an 8.
There are no moral-victory trophies, but give the remaining Bulls credit: They fought until the final whistle of a season-ending 79-78 bruiser of a loss to Philadelphia.
For Bulls fans, not to mention the players, who all dreamed of a rally in Grant Park -- if not a good series against the Miami Heat in the conference finals -- it was a sudden ending.
|Another fourth-quarter collapse left Taj Gibson speechless.|
"I don't have the words right now," said forward Taj Gibson, who had 14 points off the bench and was arguably the Bulls' best player this series. "It really sucks to lose like that, especially when it's a physical game and it's late. They're fouling hard, and we're fouling hard. It was a grind out there. It was playoff basketball, and it sucks."
That last sentence says it all. It was playoff basketball, and it sucks.
From Deng's wrist injury to Rose's array of maladies to Noah's ankle to all the nicks and bruises along the way, it seemed like the stars were aligned against the Bulls during a truncated regular season and a disastrous start to the playoffs.
"It felt like everything that wasn't supposed to happen, happened," said Deng, who had a monster game with 19 points and 17 rebounds. "Every time something happened, we kept making up for it. We really made people believe."
The Bulls fought hard, winning the most games in the regular season for the second straight year, but unlike last year's collapse in Miami, the Bulls really didn't have "more than enough to win with," as coach Tom Thibodeau loves to say.
Maybe enough, just enough, with no margin for error. Not with Noah out with a bum ankle, Rose at home and Carlos Boozer a fourth-quarter casualty of his own doing.
"We're not going to make any excuses," Deng said. "Philly was a better team in this series, and they beat us."
But really, we all know that's not true. The Bulls outrebounded Philadelphia 56-33 -- 15-5 on the offensive glass -- and outscored the Sixers 29-5 on second-chance points. After the Bulls went down 3-1, it looked as though their season would soldier on.
"We kept yelling to the bench that we're going to make our run," Deng said. "And once we started making our run, guys saw it. The finish line was just right there."
Sixers coach Doug Collins was dumbfounded.
"I don't know how we won," he said.
The ending really was a blur. Especially for this series, which took place glacially.
Asik gave the Bulls a late 3-point lead on a pick-and-roll, drive-the-lane dunk with 26 seconds left. The Sixers called their last timeout and scored on a Thaddeus Young layup with 12.8 seconds to make it 78-77.
With the clock ticking into single digits, instead of dribbling it out, C.J. Watson dished inside to Asik, and the Turkish center, who played the entire second half, was fouled. It looked like a flagrant foul as Spencer Hawes wrestled him to the ground, but it wasn't called.
It was a confusing decision by Watson, who should've kept his dribble. He's an 81 percent free throw shooter. Asik is a 45 percent free throw shooter, but he was amazingly 4-for-5. But it was his game. Asik had 10 points and nine rebounds, and had even hit a 22-foot jumper.
On defense, Asik is a player. But on offense, he's slower than arena wireless. Now, as an injured Noah was cheering him on from the bench, Asik was Keyser Soze losing his limp from the movie "The Usual Suspects."
But Asik's transformation ended with seven seconds on the clock as he missed two free throws, dripping with sweat. Andre Iguodala grabbed the rebound, drove the court and got fouled by Asik with 2.2 seconds left, and after he made his free throws, that was it.
Watson took the blame after the game.
"I think O's fine," he said. "If anything, it's on me, not on O. I put him in a bad position, but I thought he had a clear dunk and thought it was a questionable call."
Thibodeau, who never sells out his players in public, thinks the referees missed two calls on the play: a foul that wasn't called in the backcourt on Jrue Holiday and a flagrant on Hawes.
"I've got to get more clarity on what a flagrant foul is," Thibodeau said before adding a caveat: "I don't want to put it on the officials. It wasn't the officials. We didn't do what we should've done, which is close out the game."
For all the excuses you could offer, what it comes down to was the Bulls didn't win. No, this game, or this series, didn't mean much after Rose went out. But wanting to win, regardless of the payout, is why these guys play. It's why we watch. The ending of the game was the essence of sports in 12 seconds or less.
"We had three different shots to win in this place, and we blew all three," Gibson said. "Especially tonight; it hurts because you look at how we battled that whole fourth quarter, we did everything the way we were supposed to do it, and it came down to will. And we blew it."
There is much to pick apart about this game in particular and how it all fits into the story of the season -- from the Bulls' inability to get easy shots to their late-game meltdown to the Bulls' answer to Alfonso Soriano (Boozer) going 1-for-11. Boozer's rainbow connection jumper was severed. He had one nice basket inside early, and that was it. Boozer had 13 rebounds, but to be fair, I could get at least seven against the undersized, shot-happy Sixers.
Boozer will back next season. There is no sense in using the amnesty clause on him now, especially with Rose and Deng likely to miss time early. But other changes will be made. After two years together, the best Bulls team since the Jordan era won't all be back next season.
"I love everyone in that locker room," Deng said. "I love my coaching staff. Each night we had each other's back. It was more than just basketball, we cared about each other. When someone was down, we picked them up. We really became a close group. You don't have the best record in the NBA if you're not a close group."
But close didn't cut it in the end.