After Chicago's amazing upset against the Heat, the Bulls went on to split games this weekend against a pedestrian team and a poor one. The Bulls choked against the Mavericks as Dirk turned back the clock and stormed back against a Pistons team that was looking to get Charlie Villaneuva the final look.
With around four minutes to go, I almost tweeted "when the Bulls shoot this well from the three point line, they're impossible to beat". It wouldn't have quite lived up there with Swirsky's on air note that he'd "walk home if the Bulls lost this game", but I certainly would have been mocked for jinxing the hell out of the team.
The Bulls let Kirk Hinrich launch a three, the fastest way to kill a hot streak from outside, and all of a sudden no one could buy a bucket. Still, the Bulls are up by 12 when Dallas takes possession of the ball with 3:40 left on the clock. You'd feel like you don't even need to score again to win the game, just stop the other team from scoring 12 in less than 1/3rd of a period.
Well the Bulls almost succeeded on not scoring again as Carlos Boozer added one sad little point, but they sure as hell couldn't stop Dallas as Dirk Nowitzki went off on the Bulls and O.J. Mayo finally hit a layup [third times the charm!]. It was a combination of Dirk being a bad ass, and the Bulls playing stupid defense.
On the three Dirk sunk to put the Mavs ahead, Luol Deng went to chase Vince Carter driving through the lane instead of staying with Dirk. He didn't have position to do anything to Carter anyway which made the decision even more questionable, and clearly seemed to lack trust in Jimmy Butler who was waiting for Carter at the rim.
Dirk nails it, Nate misses one at the Buzzer after going 7/7 from beyond the arc [becoming just the 18th player to ever hit seven or more threes without missing], and the Bulls drop the game.
The key moment of unraveling for Chicago came down to Jimmy Butler who was clotheslined by Vince Carter on a layup attempt missing both free throws. The foul was awfully close to a flagrant, but the refs reviewed it and called it a standard foul. Carter didn't make hard contact, but all of the contact was right on Jimmy's neck. He was clearly desperately trying to stop the play rather than to hurt Jimmy though, and I think the right call was made.
Butler took blame for the loss, but Carlos Boozer didn't help much by missing a free throw just one possession earlier. The combined three free throws missed in the final minute or so were the difference between a win and a loss.
The Pistons game was much the opposite
Against Detroit, the Bulls were down almost the entire game fighting back at the end. It shared one commonality and that was an inability to hit free throws and if Detroit wasn't simply awful at basketball, the Bulls would have lost this game, and this whole column likely would have been lamenting poor free throw shooting.
Luol Deng set a new personal record for free throw attempts in a game with 17, but made a paltry 11 of those 17 attempts missing a bunch in the fourth quarter while the Bulls were trying to mount their comeback. Fortunately for Luol his misses won't sting as much as Butler's as the Bulls found a way to get it done.
With 10 games to go...
The Bulls clinched a playoff birth with their win against the Heat and are now just jockeying for playoff position. What becomes interesting though is that there's no clear best position to get left.
Chicago has a relatively light schedule to close out the season, and if I were going to take a stab in the dark, I'd say they finish it out 7-3 giving them 47 wins and 35 losses mirroring the 04/05 Chicago Bulls [one of my all time favorite Bulls teams]. The Bulls, if I'm not mistaken, own the tiebreaker against all three teams they're realistically competing against for playoff seeding.
They're 2-1 against Brooklyn with a game to play, but in any event the teams end up tied, the Bulls will have the superior conference record.
They're 2-1 against Atlanta with no games to play.
They're 2-2 against Boston, but like with Brooklyn, would win the conference record tiebreaker in any scenario they end up tied.
The most winnable first round matchup is probably the Brooklyn Nets if Derrick Rose remains out which has to be our baseline assumption at this point. If Rose were to return and play well, the best case scenario for Chicago is to finish 6th, fight through a tougher 1st round matchup in order to gain the easier 2nd round matchup.
We know the Bulls aren't likely getting past Miami regardless of what they do, so ending up in the 4/5 part of the bracket is no fun. Realistically, the worst case scenario is probably five where you miss out on the preferable 2nd round matchup and home court in round one.
Injuries outside of Derrick Rose
We're fairly Rose focused in terms of the injury watch, but I don't think it's a fair assumption that Noah will return this season at close to one hundred percent. The Bulls will likely struggle significantly in the playoffs, particularly against their most likely opponent (Brooklyn), if Noah can't return reasonably healthy.
The Bulls don't exactly have a ton of big bodies to throw around out there, and fighting against Brook Lopez will be much tougher without the athletic seven footer suiting up for Chicago.
I'd assume Belinelli returns for Chicago, but Jimmy Butler's sort of made that irrelevant by playing much better than Belinelli anyway. What will be somewhat interesting is to see what Thibodeau does with the lineup upon Beli's return. Both players were initially bench guys, so it's not like we need to go back to the other bench guy as a starter.
Butler's been better and deserves the lion's share of minutes at this point whether he starts or not.