Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
“Yay. No turnovers.”
For a player whose career has been defined by his need to recreate the camaraderie of his high school teams, it is fitting that LeBron James chose such a youthful way of celebrating what may have been the biggest performance of his career and possibly the final nail in the coffin of this current era of the Chicago Bulls, the closest thing James has had to a constant rival.
As long as the NBA has had seven-game series, Game 5 has played the most pivotal role in these series. And according to historical data site WhoWins.com, NBA teams who win Games 5 in the playoffs go on to win their series about 81 percent of the time. This doesn’t bode well for the Chicago Bulls.
But with the Cleveland Cavaliers up 3-2 in this series after Tuesday’s 106-101 win, Game 6 tonight sets up a magnificent opportunity for the Bulls to show that their team still has some long-term promise in its current state.
All signs point to this series going the distance, if it does there is certainly no shame in losing a seven-game series to the best player in basketball, but unfortunately the Bulls management may not feel the same. So this is what this incredible up-and-down season comes to for the Bulls: we have to win two games in a row, one at the United Center, one at Quicken Loans Arena.
Sure, two more victories over the Cavs would lead the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals, but so much more is at stake than that. Among the stakes — Derrick Rose’s legacy, Chicago Bulls roster spots for years to come and possibly Tom Thibodeau’s job. And even though management may seem like they are being unreasonable in their ongoing Cold War with coach Thibs, you have to first examine how we got to this point to fully understand all the variables at play here.
Flashback to the 2010 NBA playoffs. The first round match-up with the most entertainment value was a series pitting the dominant LeBron James against the young prodigy Derrick Rose. It was only Rose’s second playoff series, but he had already showed that he was a talented scoring guard who would have a bright future in the league.
No one expected the Bulls to win that series but the young, up-and-coming squad from the Windy City was expected to push James to a point where we would get to see the extent of his basketball wizardry. And the fans got exactly what they wanted. While the Bulls were able to steal Game 3 with 31 points from Rose, they were largely dominated in this series because James took control.
LeBron’s stat line for the series was literally Space Jam worthy: 31.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 3.6 stocks (steals+blocks) and 54% from the 3-point line.
The sad part is that I could’ve kept going. No matter what statistic or metric you use it is clear James played about as well as anyone (human or otherwise) could in that series. Since then it’s been clear that James retains a particular “pep in his step” when facing the Bulls. A clear problem, yeah, but nothing catastrophic.
Great players typically have another transcendent talent standing in their path to a championship. Wilt Chamberlain had Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had each other and MJ had Isiah Thomas. All of these players battled fiercely en route to a title, pushing each other to new heights. All of these players have also won at least one ‘chip. So as the 2010s dawned it looked like it was going to be LeBron vs D-Rose for Eastern Conference supremecy.
It is 2015 now and James has two titles to Rose’s zero. So, Rose is going to break through soon…right? He’s due?
A Doomed History
Flash back again, to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. The No. 1 seed Chicago Bulls were led into battle by the youngest MVP in NBA history. The Miami Heat played the villain role and they were led by the trio of Chris Bosh, Dwyane “Maybe I’m a Chicagoan, maybe I’m not” Wade and new Miami Chamber of Commerce advisor LeBron James.
Thibodeau had his great defense scheme being executed at a high-level and his offense was bolstered by the explosiveness of pre-injury Rose. The Bulls won Game 1 in Chicago behind a combined 49 point effort between Luol Deng and Rose, James was held to 15 points. All of the questions about Thibs ability to craft an effective offense around Rose were silenced and Chicago was as close to a championship than it had ever been in the post-MJ era.
And it all came crashing down.
Thibodeau’s aggressive defense was able to hold the Heat to 91 points per game for Games 2 through 5. The major problem was that the Bulls could only muster a paltry 82 points per game. The ’11 loss was bitter but all was well in Bulls Nation, as the combination of Thibodeau and Rose was sure to give Chicago over a decade of basketball relevance.
Now we move on to the next year, 2012. The Bulls again wrapped up the No. 1seed and looked to be a serious title contender. One ACL injury changed everything. Rose’s now infamous ACL tear took the collective spirit out of the Bulls and the city of Chicago, sending its prospective new Bulls dynasty into a tailspin.
It was about more than basketball at this point, fans of the game everywhere felt nothing but grief when thinking about the 23-year-old Rose not being able to contribute to his team. Joakim Noah suffered an injury in Game 3 of that same damned series to the Philadelphia 76ers and after that the Bulls were simply hobbling to the finish line.
The Bulls became the fifth top-seeded team in NBA history to lose a playoff series to an 8th-seeded team. Meanwhile, James began the march on to his first NBA championship, which culminated with a five-game series victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The championship window was getting smaller and smaller for the Bulls. Rose had to sit out the 2012-13 season to heal, that ended with a no-chance Bulls team facing and losing to James in the second round (still, remember the push?). The 2013-14 season was going to be a big one for the Bulls, the year of #thereturn.
Ten games into the 13-14’ season Rose suffered a meniscus tear. By now the 25-year old Rose had gone through injuries with both knees and it seemed if the Bulls were bound to a transitional rebuilding phase. But Derrick Rose and perseverance go together like Biggie and Tupac’s legacies.
Rose used a stretch with Team USA basketball in 2014 as a platform to get him into game shape (though he played like crap overall), he headed into this current season with a stoic determination that almost made me tear up at times. This is the Rose I have been waiting for. Unfortunately, the league wasn’t interested in letting Rose come back to the League’s elite on a cloud.
Pretty much every team improved during Rose’s absence. The biggest change, of course, was James going back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers with a now-elite Kyrie Irving waiting for him. In 2015, though, James and Rose’s teams were only No. 2 and 3 seeds rather than the expected 1 and 2. A completely unexpected revolution happened in Atlanta with the Hawks, allowing them to gain the top spot in the East, but they still shape up as perfect cannon fodder for either Rose or LeBron.
Gar Forman and the rest of Bulls management did a remarkable job of stacking the Bulls with pieces that fit together this season, rather than forming the jigsaw puzzle that was the ‘15 Cavs before general manager David Griffin saved their season at its mid-point.
With a “LeBron stopper” developed in Jimmy Butler and a bench full of offensive-minded players as opposed to the past jump-shooters and defensive stoppers, the Bulls positioned themselves to make a real title run in the midst of an injury-riddled postseason and a leadership gap atop the East.
A Doomed Present?
So much for that. James and Rose are at the height of their powers doing battle for their respective hometowns in a dream matchup that has literally been years in the making, but the difference is that while LeBron and Co. have a first-year NBA coach and a brand new roster, the Bulls are a great team that knows each other but is built amongst inner turmoil. If the Bulls don’t at least make the Finals this year, Thibodeau could be out the door.
The 2015 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals pitting a second-seeded Cleveland Cavs against the third-seeded Chicago Bulls has been uber entertaining. It currently stands with the Cavs up 3-2 behind the aforementioned “no turnovers” performance that also saw James score 38 points on 58% shooting.
Of course the story Chicago fans cared most about was the Bulls shooting 18% in the second quarter and Rose losing his efficiency down the stretch. The loss of Pau Gasol for Games 4 and 5 has hurt the Bulls offense tremendously, but with the players still healthy and available, it is unreasonable for offensive droughts like this to still plague this team.
Rose is a transcendent talent, but he isn’t LeBron James. Rose has made two of the fifteen shots he took over the final three quarters of Game 5. But a star player is supposed to shoot a bunch and Rose almost redeemed himself with a game-tying and possible series altering floater available in transition when this happened.
It was fitting that the moment that likely swung this series to its conclusion was a chase-down block on Rose executed by none other than James.
I still believe that this series will go seven games, and in a Game 7 anything can happen. This series has honestly been too close for me to be confident in any prediction one way or the other. But if I must, I still take the Bulls in seven. This is mostly because I believe Pau Gasol’s mere presence will be enough to keep the Bulls struggling offense afloat.
But James’ singular importance has given him the upper hand in the all-time Chicago vs. LeBron James rivalry, so there is no reason to believe that he couldn’t single-handedly push the Cavs past the Bulls in Game 6 at the United Center. And the elimination of the Bulls would likely mean the termination of Thibodeau and a roster shakeup as well.
The only guaranteed constants on this team going forward will be Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler (if LA doesn’t prove to be to be too tempting.
It is really crazy how basketball works. One thing that can not be controlled — in this case LeBron James’ tremendous talent — could alter the entire direction of a franchise he’s never played for, the Chicago Bulls. I hope that win or lose tonight, Bulls fans take the time to appreciate just what this current Bulls core has been through, even if their final result threatens to disappoint.
To quote another Chicago great: “They claim you never know what you got ‘til it’s gone, I know I got it, I don’t know what y’all on.”
Game 6: Cavaliers at Bulls, Tonight (7 pm, ESPN)
*-Game 7: Bulls at Cavaliers, Sunday, May 17 (TBD, TNT)
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