Capping off a campaign in which championship expectations were soon replaced by the devastating, season-ending injury to Derrick Rose and the midseason trade of Luol Deng, followed by an inspiring second half of the regular season, the Bulls’ postseason concluded more quickly than expected, with Tuesday’s 75-69 loss to the Wizards at the United Center.
Losers of the first-round playoff series by 4-1, a fourth-quarter injury to sixth man Taj Gibson (12 points), the Bulls’ most consistent player against lower-seeded Washington, was perhaps the death knell of the team’s plucky season.
After Carlos Boozer (10 points, nine rebounds) opened the game’s scoring, the Bulls fell into their familiar, series-long pattern of starting slow, as Washington rattled off the next six points of the contest. Wizards big man Nene (20 points, seven rebounds), presumably well rested after his Game 4 suspension for his Game 3 altercation with Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler (16 points), made an early impact for the visitors, who quickly built a slim cushion.
All-Star point guard John Wall (24 points, seven rebounds, four assists) also made his presence felt, but the Bulls’ biggest issue in the opening period was their 26.1 percent shooting from the field. The Wizards, despite their four turnovers, put their hosts in a 23-15 hole at the conclusion of the first quarter.
The Bulls’ shooting woes carried over to the second stanza, but as the period progressed, they were able to trim the gap, making it a single-digit affair. As usual, the home team’s spurt was led by Gibson, who energized a quiet crowd with explosive plays on both ends of the floor, but also veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich (16 points, four assists), who contributed timely scoring.
Capitalizing off Washington’s eight first-half turnovers, the Bulls went on a 14-2 run to seize control of the contest and take the lead, as All-Star center Joakim Noah (six points, 18 rebounds, seven assists) got back to pushing the ball off defensive boards and being an offensive facilitator. Butler also got into the act and at the intermission, both teams were knotted up at 41 apiece.
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After the break, Noah and Nene were the focal points for the respective teams, with the latter getting the better of the matchup, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. But while Noah, who appeared to be hobbled and favoring his right leg, held his own, the Bulls experienced ball-security issues—after committing a lone turnover in the entire first half, they turned it over five times in just the early portion of the third quarter—and the Wizards gradually created some separation behind Nene’s barrage of mid-range jumpers and the capable scoring of second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal (17 points, five rebounds, four assists).
The combination of continued poor shooting, an increasingly laboring Noah and a Washington team that simply outhustled, as has been the case all series, led to the Bulls trailing, 61-52, heading into the final stanza.
As expected, the Bulls fought valiantly at the outset of the fourth quarter, trying desperately to make a dent in the Wizards’ winning margin, but those plans were derailed at the 7:51 mark, when Gibson turned his left ankle severely and unable to put any pressure on it, had to be helped to the locker room by his teammates. Boozer, who usually doesn’t play in the final period, was reinserted into the contest and although the Bulls remained within striking distance, they still had ground to make up heading into the game’s stretch run.
The outside marksmanship of the starting backcourt of Butler and Hinrich made it a close-knot game and a jumper by the much-maligned Boozer cut Washington’s lead to 70-67. But the Wizards responded, as Wall knocked down a pull-up jumper to beat the shot clock with 2:37 remaining, setting up the Bulls’ final push.
The Bulls’ inability to keep their guests off the offensive boards—Washington had three consecutive second chances on a single possession before finally turning it over with just under a minute left—seemingly doomed the hosts’ chances, but after Boozer missed a layup attempt, the Wizards committed a shot-clock violation, giving the Bulls the ball with 22.4 seconds to play, trailing 72-69. But following a well-executed inbounds play, Butler missed a contested layup, forcing the Bulls to foul, leading to Hinrich’s disqualification.
Washington veteran backup point guard Andre Miller missed a pair of free throws, but the Wizards again ended up with the offensive rebound and incredibly, after Beal was fouled and missed the second of two foul shots, the visitors again ended up with it and Wall knocked down two from the charity stripe to seal the deal.
Now, the focus shifts to a highly-anticipated offseason, one in which any observers believe will end with a revamped roster heading into next season, as well as Rose’s return.