This one will linger
Bulls may not be able to shake memory of Game 5 collapse until roster is upgraded
CHICAGO -- It's the kind of loss a team cannot shake overnight. More than likely it's the kind that lasts for months, perhaps even longer, maybe defines a team in ways it doesn't want to be defined. The Bulls were overpowered in a way that leaves something of a stench on what, in any complete context, was a wonderful season. Yes, it was that bad a loss, to be strong-armed in the final three minutes of an elimination game on their home court when the acknowledged strengths of the team are defense and the will to resist.
We want to watch the last four minutes of the game, because we don't really know what happened.” -- LeBron James
It's bad when you have no idea what hit you, even worse when the guy doing the punching landed so many blows he couldn't remember what he threw or how many he landed. That's right, the Miami Heat landed so many haymakers they couldn't describe how they knocked the daylights out of the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference title. Asked if he could see the Bulls' body language change as they got nailed with one shot after another, LeBron James said candidly, "No, we just saw our body language change."
Approximately 30 minutes had passed since Miami had stormed the Bulls, humiliated them on their home court and ended their season. And literally, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade couldn't explain what had happened with any greater detail than the dazed Bulls players who were in their locker room as if they were taking a standing-eight count. Wade shrugged when asked about the mugging and said, "I really need to see the videotape because I'm not sure I know what happened. I know we made a bunch of shots. I know I had the four-point play, but the specifics ... I can't wait to watch the tape of this because it all happened so quickly, I'm not sure I remember it clearly."
LeBron's take wasn't much different. "We want to watch the last four minutes of the game," he said, "because we don't really know what happened."
If you're a member of the Bulls, you have no incentive to watch. There's no "cleaning up" the mistakes, to use a favorite phrase of Tom Thibodeau. What it would reveal, upon further review, especially on the heels of close losses to Miami in Game 2 and Game 5, is that the Bulls didn't have the personnel to beat Miami and didn't have the know-how, either.
And you know what's even worse news than that for the Bulls? The Heat are better now, lots better, than they were three weeks ago against the Celtics in the second round, and almost certain to get a whole lot better between now and next year's playoffs. Miami became much closer to a finished product during the five-game series against the Bulls.
When a team is eliminated from the playoffs in the manner that the Bulls were, by an 18-3 run, the blame is going to fall someplace. Derrick Rose, fortunately for the franchise, is stand-up enough not to run from it. "I wasn't tired," Rose said afterward, though every player I sought for an opinion said, yes, Rose was indeed tired. "Turnovers, missed shots, fouls ... if anything," Rose said, "learn from it. That's all I can do right now ... I wasn't tired, just making dumb decisions ... which cost us this game ... just get better."
About as light as the mood got was Rose saying with his trademark quiet defiance, "I'm going to get better; I'm not worried about that. It's going to make me hungry."
If Rose is as mentally tough as we've come to believe, he'll get over the humiliation of the loss. Anybody who followed the Jordan Bulls on the way up should easily remember how MJ's Bulls were similarly beaten back by Detroit in 1988, 1989 and 1990 when the Pistons would routinely walk the Bulls down and turn double-digit Chicago leads into Detroit playoff victories. That version of Jordan looked like this Rose, bad shooting percentage and all. This isn't to suggest that Rose is going to have the same career uptick that Jordan did eventually, just that failure three, four, five, even six years into a playoff career doesn't preclude the ultimate success.
LeBron James was quick to offer in the Miami dressing room that he, LeBron, should know about playoff failures, being eight years in without a championship and only one trip to the NBA Finals (2007). James said Rose, like virtually every champion dating back to the beginning of time, has had to endure real heartache while figuring out the details of how to win games late in the playoffs.
A whole lot more than Rose's learning curve is at issue here. For one, if the Bulls plan to get anywhere close to Miami in the next few years, management had better go and find probably two players of impact. Anything less than improving the roster and the execs are just fooling themselves, and we'll be having this review of failure over and over the next few springs.
Yes, Miami's players legitimately believe they'll have a standing date with the Bulls every May over the next few years. Chris Bosh, asked if this is the start of a rivalry, said, "Absolutely. That team, they're not going anywhere. They're going to do nothing but get better. I'm sure there will be plenty of battles with those guys. They have a great young core, great veterans, a fantastic coach. We're going to be spending every summer thinking about the Bulls."
But not if there isn't some roster enhancement, and not if players don't take what happened in Game 5 as hard as Rose did. All he did was leave the United Center saying, "We've got to get this done." The pain was etched on his face even if it was expressionless.
Rose is going to get better because he's going to work at it, probably more fanatically this summer than he did last. Thibodeau said of Rose, "He'll study, he'll prepare, he'll get better..."
But one has to wonder about Carlos Boozer and whether work will be the answer for him. His 1-for-6 shooting performance in Game 5 was pathetic. He recorded nearly as many personal fouls (four) as points (five). Players from other teams around the league privately ridiculed Boozer for being less effective than 38-year-old Kurt Thomas, who makes a fraction of what Boozer makes. The Miami players, while saying nothing privately, couldn't wait for the locker-room doors to close to congratulate Bosh (20 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots) for torching Boozer, who had the nerve to refuse to include Bosh in any discussion about Miami's talented trio ("big two," Boozer said repeatedly). Bosh proved to be not only a damn good player but also a great teammate in that he continually suffered insults and indignities but shut his mouth and played at a higher level than some of the knuckleheads criticizing him. Bosh is a keeper. The Bulls had better find a couple of more guys, whatever position they play, just like him, guys short on excuses and long on performance.
Some years ago, 27 to be exact, another Chicago team left a conference final after a loss. The Bears had gone out to San Francisco and suffered a whitewash at the hands of a 49ers team headed to a championship. As the players who would be the stars of the Bears championship defense the next season walked off the field at Candlestick Park, some of the Niners said in admiration, "Nice game, next time bring an offense."
Well, the Heat players could have said the same. Whatever improvements Rose makes over the summer, he'll need some help offensively. The notion that defenses win championships is a truism, but no champion in this day and age is one-dimensional. Next year the Bulls had better bring an offense, a fully developed offense, one as competent and strategically sound in most areas as is the defense. That should prevent those dreadful offensive possessions that plagued the Bulls once the score was 77-65 in their favor, with only 3:14 to play, and they should have been running pet plays that resulted in baskets or trips to the foul line.
Thing is, the Bulls would have learned so much more had they forced a sixth game back in Miami or a seventh here in Chicago. Even a loss in Miami wouldn't have left the bad taste in the mouth that losing Game 5 did, after building a dozen-point lead. In most ways, the Bulls probably came very close to maxing out, based on their talent and experience levels. Part of the reason they won 62 games, had no incidents on or away from the court, and took the conference's top seed is that they had remarkable togetherness and focus, something commonly known as chemistry.
But a loss like the one in Game 5 can change all the dynamics, can alter the motivation, the togetherness, the selflessness. All it takes is one guy to be discouraged and work less or become more disruptive, or blame a teammate for Miami's 18-3 run. It's such a delicate thing, the success or near success of a team. A free throw here, a basket there and the Bulls would be on a flight to Miami for Game 6 and at worst a defeat they could shake off on the flight back home. Now they'll carry it through a summer of discontent, one during which the primary questions will center not on the highlights of a run almost nobody outside the organization expected, but on what the hell in those final three minutes went so incredibly wrong.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.