After a heart-breaking 95-92 home loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 6 of the First Round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs even the most optimistic Bulls fan would have told you Tom Thibodeau's "We have enough to win," was becoming the 2013 version of "Rex is our quarterback." Repeating ad nauseum the season long mantra despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary seemed as futile as the wishes of a boy stuck in summer school who prays for a snow day.
Honestly I felt much better about Caleb Hanie leading a two touchdown comeback against the Green Bay Packers in the freezing cold of the 2011 NFC Championship Game than I did about mighty mouse Nate Robinson leading the Bulls to an elimination game victory over Olympian Deron Williams at the raucous Barclay's Center. Vegas didn't like their chances much better: the Bulls were 6.5 point dogs to the Nets.
Oh how quickly things change... an epic Game 7 win over the Brooklyn Nets combined with a gritty Game 1 victory over the defending World Champion Miami Heat tend to do that. Suddenly, this Bulls squad has gone from being Chicago's unloved red headed step children to the new darlings of the NBA. They probably won't win the series, but they have forever won your hearts.
This was supposed to be 'the lost season.' Not even ten days ago the Chicago Sun-Times was writing the obituary of the 2012-2013 Chicago Bulls: "The Fade of 'The Franchise'" they called it. The Bulls prospects were so hopeless that all-everything point guard Derrick Rose decided to forgo #TheReturn because the team hadn't put enough quality pieces around him to contend.
Since before the season started Bulls GM Gar Forman has been taking extreme heat from the fan-base for letting his vaunted Bench Mob break up. Out was the shot blocking and rebounding of Omer Asik, the athleticism and versatility of Ronnie Brewer, the steady veteran leadership of Mike James, the deadly 3pt shooting of Kyle Korver, the irrational albeit unwavering cockiness of John Lucas III, the flaming red hair of fan favorite Brian Scalabrine, and the gangily arms of ball-hawk CJ Watson.
Their replacements were underwhelming to say the least. Even after a full season of watching them there were major concerns about each and every one of these players. Marco Belinelli couldn't shoot and was largely allergic to defense. Daequan Cook should have been in the D-League. Kirk Hinrich was a walking MASH unit. Nazr Mohammed was 72 years old. Vladimir Radmanovic hadn't been serviceable since Seattle still played basketball. Nate Robinson was a sideshow, like Benny the Bull or the Chinese acrobats, whose purpose was to provide a distraction while the fans sheepishly waited for #TheReturn of D-Rose. Marquis Teague was a rookie and no one had ever heard of Malcolm Thomas (note: no one has still ever heard of Malcolm Thomas).
More recently Gar Forman has been blamed for what some perceive to be 'a breakdown in communication' between the organization and their star player Derrick Rose. The ongoing Derrick Rose-saga has dominated the story line and turned a large majority of Bulls fans against their hometown hero.
Somehow the Chicago Bulls Junior Varsity has managed to win consecutive road playoff games against the All-Stars and Olympians of the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat. Somehow a Bulls team that was utterly unwatchable for the second half of the season has become among the most beloved squads in Chicago history. Somehow Jimmy Butler transformed into #JimmyBuckets (21pts, 14reb, 3asts in 48 min) and Nate Robinson (27 pts, 9 asts, 3 rebs in 40 mins) from irrational confidence guy to bonafide King Slayer have taken this misfit band of wounded warriors as far as All-Star Luol Deng and MVP Derrick Rose did in 2010-2011, a 1-0 series lead against the Miami Heat.
When it appeared the Chicago Bulls were on their way to blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Brooklyn Nets. ESPN Chicago's own Scoop Jackson spent his time long-distance reminiscing about Mr. Hot Sauce himself, Kyle Korver.
I'll say it for you: If Korver were still here in Chicago, the Bulls would probably be preparing for Game 1 against the Heat instead of limping into a Game 6 against the Nets. But the reality is that he's not. With Kirk Hinrich being down and all of the offense running through Nate Robinson, Korver -- as long as his shot is falling -- could save the Bulls right now. I know, I know... the Bulls had their chance, but they didn't want to delve deeper into the luxury so they traded him to Atlanta and signed Marco Belinelli at a cheaper price.
Yet five days later there was Marco Belinelli coming through in crunch time while Kyle Korver was taking the game in from his couch.
All the while I couldn't help but think, maybe Gar Forman, the 2011 NBA Executive of the Year, knew what he was doing all along. In the absence of Rose, Joakim Noah has emerged as an All-Star. Luol Deng further cemented his status as one of the game's finest two way players. Carlos Boozer, who was an almost certain victim of the amnesty clause, has had a career renaissance and suddenly made himself indispensable. Hinrich ran the offense efficiently and brought lock-down defense to the other end. Both Robinson and Belinelli are superflous pieces when Derrick Rose is healthy. Both men are gunslingers who thrive when they know their coach can't take them out. The pair has shown they have "the onions" to not only step up and take the big shot when needed, but also the ability to sink them.
When fans were clamoring to acquire "the missing piece," a shooting guard like OJ Mayo or JJ Redick, at the trade deadline Gar knew he had that guy in his 2011 first round draft pick, Jimmy Butler. The fans didn't know that sitting on the bench behind the NBA's minutes leader was a guy who was capable of playing 48 minutes in three straight playoff games. Obviously even Derrick Rose didn't know what Butler was capable of or else his brother, Reggie Rose, would have never made his infamous Feb 21st comments and Derrick likely would be playing by now. The emergence of Butler combined with the return of Derrick Rose would have bolstered the Bulls roster after the trade deadline in a way that every other team in the league would have been envious of.
No matter what happens for the rest of this series, the Chicago Bulls future looks bright. Moving forward with a core of PG Derrick Rose, SG Jimmy Butler, SF Luol Deng, PF Taj Gibson/Nikola Mirotic, and C Joakim Noah plus Teague and the future first round pick of the lowly Bobcats makes the Bulls as formidable as any in the league in both the immediate and long term. The athleticism and length of the Bulls core ought to keep them as contenders for years to come. Instead of braking the bank to resign the Bench Mob, Forman did an incredible job of finding diamonds in the rough. Once he put those pieces together he trusted his first hire, Coach Tom Thibodeau, fully when he said, "We have enough to win."
Well done Gar Forman.