The grind-it-out, 48-minute junkyard dog Bulls tried it one more time, but they finally ran out of gas.
During a year in which they lost Derrick Rose and Luol Deng before the All-Star break, Duke freshman Jabari Parker seemed like a more realistic shot than the playoffs did. Yet game after game, Tom Thibodeau's group fought back, rallied and muscled out wins, sometimes games they had little business competing in.
That effort, determination and will that had carried them to 48 wins and homecourt advantage in the first round. But it wouldn't let them past the Wizards.
Yet even in a game where they wound up shooting 33 percent from the field, committed 10 turnovers after halftime and had their two best post players hobbling off the court, the Bulls still had a chance to win. A nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter had been trimmed to just three, and a Bradley Beal floater in the lane should have given the Bulls possession with a chance potentially to tie the game.
Instead, Marcin Gortat smacked the missed shot back out to a teammate, resetting the shot clock with less than two minutes remaining. Then Nene missed a jumper, and Gortat repeated his tip-out. 1:38 remaining. John Wall grabbed the ball, let the clock wind down before hoisting a jumper to extend the Wizards' lead. Wall was off, but Gortat was there for yet another offensive board. Bradley Beal eventually turned the ball over as the clock read 59.8 seconds. Between D.J. Augustin's free throws and the next time the Bulls touched the ball, nearly 80 seconds had run off the clock.
"It symbolized the way the series went," Dunleavy said of that possession. "We just could not secure an offensive rebound, a lot of tipouts, a lot of loose balls and it was kind of the crowing blow to our season."
But the Bulls' tiresome legs weren't done yet. Out of a timeout Carlos Boozer, playing for the injured Taj Gibson, missed a shot at the rim, and after a shot clock violation from the Wizards, Jimmy Butler missed a left-handed bunny of a layup that would have brought the Bulls within one with 19 seconds remaining.
Following Butler's miss the Bulls fouled Andre Miller, a career 80 percent free throw shooter. He missed the first and then the second, but Nene was able to extend his arm over a hobbled Joakim Noah for yet another tip-out. Augustin then fouled Bradley Beal, who made the first but missed the second. Yet another chance or the Bulls to will their way to victory, only Nene was there to chase down the missed free throw in almost the exact location on the other side of the floor that Gortat has maintained possession just a minute earlier.
"It’s very disappointing just to go out like that—free-throw rebounds," said Joakim Noah, who grabbed 18 rebounds despite limping noticeably much of the game. "Definitely going to be thinking about that for a while and just thinking about it, there’s a lot of things I’ve got to do a lot better in my game. I’m going to take that into the summer and I’m going to work my ass off to become a better player, be even more ready for next year."
If the Bulls seemed tired down the stretch, it's because they were. For the fifth time in the series the Wizards outscored the Bulls in the opening period, with Tuesday night's score reading 23-15 after 12 minutes. For the series the Wizards outscored the Bulls, 136-103, in the opening stanza, creating a difficult obstacle for the Bulls to overcome night in and night out.
And though they did make a comeback in Game 3 after trailing, eventually winning, Taj Gibson admitted that playoff basketball is too demanding to come back from such a large deficit and then still have enough energy to close things out.
"Every game went down the exact same way, and tonight the exact same scenario. We were fighting in the second quarter, trying to get back in the lead. We cut it, then beginning of the third quarter, same exact scenario. They jump on us and we have to fight back," he said. "That’s not playoff basketball. Playoff basketball is a game of runs, but you can’t make it 10, 15 (point deficit). You can’t win like that. We were gassed in the fourth (quarter). Honestly, we were gassed. We were just always battling back and we always found ways to win, but how long could you do that for?"
The answer, at least in this playoff series, was five games. Despite the obstacles facing the Bulls and the fact that they did fight back from so much adversity, there's no number for that to show for in the box score. The numbers show 69 points in a playoff game, allowing 13 offensive rebounds and 13 fast-break points to a team that thrived off both statistics.
"You could put it on fatigue or you could put it on we just didn’t get it done. Like when we don’t get to two loose balls and we lose the game, it’s because we didn’t get to two loose balls, not because we’re tired," he said. "Everyone’s tired."
By the time the Bulls had willed their way back to make the game competitive -- like they had done so many times this season -- it was too late. Though Thibodeau said after the game that he was proud of his team's effort during the series, there was a different tone in the Bulls' locker room. Effort was there at times, but it showed up too late and didn't last long enough for the Bulls to stay competitive in the series.
"In the playoffs, intensity goes up. You have to be ready for that. We weren't really there the first four games to meet their offensive intensity," Kirk Hinrich said. "It wasn't just tonight. It seemed like that most of the series where they got almost every 50-50 ball opportunity."