- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It would be a shame to allow the Bulls' collapse in the Eastern Conference finals to overshadow what turned out to be a surprisingly great season. But it would be worse for the glow of an NBA-best regular-season record to gloss over the team's fundamental flaws.
It was easy to see, despite his and Tom Thibodeau's insistence to the contrary, that Derrick Rose eventually wore down from the enormous load he had to carry.
Taj Gibson's overall development was probably slowed by the Boozer acquisition.
Defense might win championships, but really good offenses run by really good players can still beat the best of defenses.
It wasn't hard to see most of these things play out as the playoffs progressed. When a good shooter's aim suddenly goes awry, you usually can start with his legs, and Rose simply did not have his legs under him during the postseason.
Making matters worse was the pressure the 6-foot-3 guard was under by bigger defenders who could double-team him knowing the Bulls lacked other potent offensive weapons.
"They made Derrick work too hard for his offense. That's why he ended up shooting 9-for-29 [in Game 5 on Thursday night and 42-for-120 for the series]," Scottie Pippen said.
The Bulls Hall of Famer was one of the first to offer congratulations on the season to his former team Thursday, circulating through the locker room after the Bulls were eliminated by Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. But Pippen also has spoken his mind this postseason, criticizing the team for its lack of hard fouls against the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, and came right to the point Friday as well.
"They hound [Rose] off the pick with two guys who are 6-9, so he has to make a pass," Pippen told ESPNChicago.com. "And now you give it to a guy who can't make a play. Derrick passes to Joakim, Joakim passes it back and now the shot clock is against him.
"How can you be efficient when you don't even have to make the defense move or shift, because they're not rotating to Joakim, they're not doubling Boozer. You put a little traffic around Boozer, and he couldn't hold on to the ball anyway. I don't know if his toe was the cause of [some of his poor play], but it doesn't explain bad hands. He didn't perform."
Boozer had his moments during the playoffs, but his best nights never seemed to coincide with Bulls wins. And Thursday night, he and Noah, two of the highest-paid players on the team, did not play at all in the fourth quarter.
"You can't have two of your top high-paid players sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter," Pippen said. "And that isn't just last night's game. We have seen this the whole season. So for us to think the Bulls are going to go farther when your high-priced players aren't going to carry you and finish games for you ... you're not talking about a championship team."
When the Heat decided early in the series that they were going to try to shut down Rose and let anyone else beat them, and then were able to severely limit Rose from driving to the basket, the tone was set for what would be a decidedly uphill battle for the Bulls.
In Game 1, Pippen said, the Heat over-committed on Rose to such an extent that everyone else had decent games -- the Bulls' bench outscored the Heat 28-15.
"After that, they continued their focus on Derrick but didn't allow others to have big games and started to limit the Bulls' rebounding opportunities," Pippen said. "Once they limited Joakim's scoring off offensive rebounds, that's basically how he makes his living, they put the Bulls in bad situations and they struggled."
Noah averaged six points and 10 rebounds (four offensive) per game against the Heat, down from scoring averages of eight and 12 against Atlanta and Indianapolis, respectively, and down slightly on the boards as well.
Together, Noah and Boozer, who had limited time together during the regular season because of injuries, never looked entirely comfortable.
"I don't know if Boozer and Joakim can play together," Pippen said bluntly. "If Boozer was a great scorer, that would be great for Joakim because he could come up with so much space on the offensive boards. But with Boozer not as effective as you thought he was going to be, it's two bigs standing side by side out there."
Another frustration comes from wondering how this slowed the progress of Gibson, who -- while displaying great defense, rebounding and shot-blocking ability throughout much of the postseason -- did not contribute much offensively.
"When Boozer gets in foul trouble or does something crazy and you have to get him out, now the pressure is on Taj to do something," Pippen theorized. "When Taj is there and Boozer is out [of the lineup], he's a man on a mission with no pressure to score and he tends to play better under those circumstances."
With his ballhandling ability and overall athleticism, Gibson certainly would appear to have the tools to be a good offensive player. "He's just never been in a position to do that," Pippen said.
Like many Bulls fans, Pippen also wondered why Thibodeau did not go to Kurt Thomas earlier in the series. Thomas, who started 37 games for the Bulls during the regular season, played in just seven of the Bulls' 16 playoff games and made his first appearance in the Miami series in Game 5, scoring four points and grabbing eight rebounds in 18 minutes (both baskets and seven of the rebounds coming in the fourth quarter).
"Kurt's number should have been called many, many games ago," Pippen said. "We got to this point with Kurt Thomas, not without him. He's a hard-nosed guy, he gives hard fouls, he carried minutes and was a starter during the season. And then in the postseason, we felt we could win with guys who could get us there but not guys who actually did get us there. It kind of downplayed what the bench did for us all season."
If Omer Asik had been in the lineup in Game 5, rather than sitting out with a broken leg, we would not have seen Thomas at all.
"[Thomas] could have been the guy to come in and knock shots down," Pippen said. "To me, you weren't utilizing what he can do for you. Like [Udonis] Haslem, when [Dwyane] Wade wasn't making shots in Game 3, they kept running pick-and-roll plays [for Haslem] because he was making plays. We never went back to Kurt after he made plays."
While the Bulls' defense got stronger throughout the playoffs and kept them in every game, ultimately it was not enough to stop the force of LeBron James at his best.
"[The Bulls] played good defense on James throughout the whole series," Pippen said. "But good offense beats good defense any day, and LeBron James was good offensively throughout the playoffs and he's on the rise now. He can miss the next three shots for game winners and there is no reason people should say he's not a big-time player and can't make big-time plays at the end of games because he made shots at the end of every game.
"He's probably one of the greatest all-around players we've ever seen. His physical attributes are just amazing with his ability to put the ball on the floor with speed, his jumping ability, running the floor, making plays. I've never seen another player like him. He has a lot of Magic [Johnson] in him, a lot of Michael [Jordan], Kobe [Bryant]. He has some Karl Malone in him. He's just a unique player."
And it is James, Pippen said, who will allow the Heat to beat Dallas for the NBA title.
"Dallas is going to have more problems matching up with Miami than the Bulls did," he said. "The Bulls had matchup problems, but being so good from a team defense standpoint allowed them to stay in the series. I don't think Dallas has that ability to stop them. Everything is falling into play for them."
As for the Bulls, who had chances to win in each of the four losses against the Heat, the best team simply prevailed. That much was painfully obvious.
"We know they were over-matched," Pippen said of the Bulls. "They struggled and struggled against Indiana, then it was pretty much the same thing where they didn't play that great against Atlanta and were almost pushed to a Game 7. And now we turn around and face arguably the best team in the playoffs, and we don't get performances from guys we need to perform.
"It's as simple as that. The best team is going to win because of their best players' performances."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
After a great regular season, the Bulls can't gloss over their fundamental flaws.