The Chicago Bulls entered the playoffs with the best record in the NBA, the second best point differential in the NBA, the best defense in the NBA, and very likely the MVP of the NBA. Why is a 62-20 team struggling so hard to eke out wins over a 37-45 team?
This is a group that many were picking to coast into the Eastern Conference finals (which they still might do). As many pundits picked Chicago to win the East as picked Miami in the most commonly projected conference title matchup. And, it's not hard to find pundits who think Chicago has what it takes to go all the way.
Indiana? By most standards they're not a playoff caliber team. They finished the regular season eight games below .500 with a negative point differential. It was another weak year in the East, and there weren't eight playoff caliber teams. Somebody had to get the last spot. Indiana got it, and was expected to be blowout fodder.
This #1 seed was supposed to CRUSH this #8 seed.
As a second straight hardfought nailbiter was unfolding before our eyes Monday night, I decided to go back and look at the past few weeks of the Bulls regular season. I wanted to compare and contrast the greatness that had everyone so excited with the mediocrity we were suddenly looking at (if you're going to the wire at home against mediocrity, that's the level you're playing at too!).
Chicago closed the regular season very well as you all know in terms of won-lost record. Their late season slate included double digit wins over Minnesota and Cleveland, the worst teams in the league fighting over positioning in the draft lottery. Here's what happened when not playing Minnesota or Cleveland since late March.
*Chicago 95, Milwaukee 87
Chicago had to rally late to beat a non-playoff team. The Bulls won the fourth quarter 26-13 after playing below par much of the night. That's a fairly good match for Game One of the Indiana series.
*Philadelphia 97, Chicago 85
Poor performance, but things had been going so well for so long in Chicago that nobody gave it much thought. That is a home loss to the eventual #7 seed though.
*Chicago 101, Detroit 96
Well, another hardfought win against a non-playoff team.
*Chicago 113, Toronto 106
A theme is developing! Chicago isn't running away and hiding from people, even though they're not exactly facing a murderer's row. Remember that the coach and players were talking about not taking their foot off the gas. They were going to finish strong. It was the only way they knew. So, this isn't a case of the Spurs resting starters and accepting some losses...or a bunch of veterans going at three-quarters speed to save their legs. Chicago was winning, but it was a fight most nights.
*Chicago 97, Phoenix 94
The last game against a Western conference opponent was another home nailbiter against a non-playoff team.
*Chicago 97, Boston 81
This is the game that set the stage for the big expectations. The national media wasn't watching the Bulls eke out wins over Milwaukee, Detroit, Toronto, or Phoenix. But, EVERYONE was watching this high profile Thursday night matchup on TNT. It felt at the time like Chicago was championship caliber. In retrospect, it may have been more about Boston either saving themselves for the playoffs, or being down in the dumps since the Kendrick Perkins trade. Boston hasn't had many games lately vs. quality where they looked like a playoff team.
*Chicago 102, Orlando 99
The Bulls had already wrapped up the #1 seed in the East. But, they were still supposedly fighting for best overall record (which they eventually won). They struggled to get past Orlando in a game Dwight Howard missed. You saw how bad Orlando looked vs. Atlanta Saturday night outside of Howard. Is it safe to call Orlando a "non-playoff team" if Howard is out of the lineup?
Spotted this interesting quote from Derrick Rose in ESPN's recap after the Orlando win:
"We should have easily put them away. We've got to learn how to put teams away."
The Bulls wrapped things up with a win over New York that Amare Stoudemire missed, and a surprisingly close season finale against New Jersey that saw lower than normal minutes for many starters.
So, basically, the overriding theme of the Bulls since late March has been struggling to grind their way past non-playoff teams. The exceptions would be easy wins over the very worst teams in the league...and the blowout of fizzling Boston that may have warped expectations for everyone who watched (remember that Miami would beat that same Boston team 100-77 a few days later).
The 104-99 and 96-90 wins over Indiana were actually a continuation of what had been happening late in the season. Hardfought battles that Chicago grinded out against non-playoff caliber opponents.
Where did Chicago go? Maybe they weren't what we were imagining in the first place. Or, maybe they aren't now what they were back in the first few weeks of March when blowouts were much more common. Chicago's two wins over Indiana continue the tendencies we saw against Milwaukee, Detroit, Toronto, Phoenix, and shorthanded Orlando. At least they didn't have a replay of the debacle vs. Philadelphia. This IS their recent form. Win ugly. Or, as Rose suggested, even though they're winning they've lost the ability to put teams away.
CHICAGO 96, INDIANA 90
Two-Point Pct: Indiana 43%, Chicago 39%
3-Point Shooting: Indiana 6/17, chicago 5/14
Rebounds: Indiana 33, Chicago 57
Turnovers: Indiana 17, Chicago 21
(Expanded boxscore is here)
The Bulls are terrorizing the boards (and had another huge offensive rebounding rate tonight), but continue to be much worse in the turnover department. They lost that stat 27-35 over the first two games despite playing at home.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Indiana. Chicago may not be as far clear of the Eastern field as we thought. They could still be far enough ahead to eventually meet expectations in a watered down conference. Miami Heat fans will certainly be watching very closely...
MIAMI 94, PHILADELPHIA 73
This was such a whitewash (with white seat covers) that there's no reason to run stats (expanded boxscore is here). Philadelphia only scored 13 points in the first quarter, and never threatened to make it interesting. Miami won the last three quarters Saturday (after a bad start)...and the first three quarters tonight (before relaxing with a big lead)...by a whopping 153-110 margin. That's putting your foot on the accelerator, even with a shaky last six minutes Saturday. (Next Day edit...worth noting in a longer review of the boxscore that shooting inside 10 feet explains much of the difference from Game One to Game Two. Philadelphia dropped from 21 of 35 to 11 of 35 in that range, keyed by 0-11 from 3-9 feet. Miami held stable, with 14 of 25 in G1 and 15 of 25 in G2)
Back around midnight Tuesday to review the evening's tripleheader...