With the Bulls shockingly being down two games to none against the Wizards in their first-round playoff series, this is the point where all of the old whispers start to resurface, so let’s just get it out of the way now.
Forget the officiating, Kirk Hinrich’s missed free throws at the end of Tuesday night’s Game 2 overtime loss, Washington’s surprising willingness to successfully mix it up in the trenches, Wizards big man Nene’s ability to score against Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and even the late-game offensive droughts in both games of the series: Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s stubbornness might be the most crucial factor in his team’s rocky start to the playoffs. Playing the same style of basketball they did all year—or at least since January or so, after Luol Deng was traded—worked in the regular season, but against an opponent with underrated talent, toughness and maybe most significantly, the ability to make adjustments, the Bulls have found themselves in a serious hole.
“Just win the next game. Win the next game,” a dejected Thibodeau said following Tuesday’s loss, in which the Bulls once again surrendered a late lead after seemingly being in control of the contest. “You take them one at a time. You’ve got to look at the film, make some corrections and get ready for the next one.”
Hopefully the coach heeds his own advice.
Thibodeau’s seven-man rotation was a given before the series started, but in the postseason, where game-to-game adjustments might be the biggest difference between a win and a loss, one of the league’s best coaches has relied on will and determination, of which the Bulls are never in short supply, over strategy.
Around this time a year ago, after the Bulls lost Game 1 in Brooklyn, there was a growing faction of observers who believed that Thibodeau, for all of his brilliance, was too inflexible to have his regular-season success carry over to the playoffs, with the 2011 conference finals loss to Miami (truly the better team that season) and the 2012 first-round defeat at the hands of Philadelphia (extenuating circumstances, namely the season-ending injuries to both Noah and of course, Derrick Rose, clearly impacted things) used as evidence. That line of thinking was simply wrong and obviously premature, as the Bulls went on to beat the Nets in seven games and though they went on to lose to the eventual-champion Heat, heads could be held high at the conclusion to the campaign. For that to happen this time around, things will have to change in a hurry, as a confident Washington squad now goes home with the intention of not returning to Chicago for a Game 5 next week.
It’s hard to imagine the Bulls getting swept and the team’s pride makes it unlikely that will occur, but it’s similarly hard to believe that playing Jimmy Butler for an entire contest—the swingman played all 53 minutes Tuesday and it was reflected in his 2-for-9 shooting and the big night the player he was assigned to defend, second-year Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, enjoyed—and a reluctance to play two of the more offensively-capable players on the team, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy Jr., to provide a semblance of a scoring threat or even just give the likes of Noah, sixth man Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin some rest, will result in anything different than what’s already been witnessed in the series.
This is Wizards head coach Randy Wittman’s first time coaching in the postseason and while he isn’t known as one of the league’s top tacticians, some of the maneuvers he’s made—for example, using crafty 38-year-old floor general Andre Miller to attack the diminutive Augustin, taking away Noah’s airspace to prevent him from finding cutters from the high post and employing 6-foot-8 small forward Trevor Ariza to defend Augustin—have been problematic for the Bulls. Washington’s players should get credit, too, for not only anticipating—before the Wizards’ shootaround Tuesday morning, All-Star point guard John Wall remarked, “Usually, the bully and punk guys”—but embracing the Bulls’ physical style of play, the rough interior play, and mild skirmishes between Hinrich and Beal, then Noah and Ariza displayed.
All that said, if anything was learned from the narrative of the Bulls being able to battle through adversity, it’s this: Friday’s Game 3 at the Verizon Center will feature them at their maximum-intensity, precise-executing best. Although they seemed stunned by Washington’s ability to take their best punches and keep coming, the feeling in the Bulls’ locker room postgame Tuesday was one of hope.
“It’s pretty quiet. Everyone’s pretty much thinking to themselves, but at the same time we can’t hang our heads,” Augustin said. “We’ve got to keep our heads up and like I said it’s not over with. Just keep fighting and go to Washington and try to get two [wins] there.”
When asked about exactly how they would bounce back, Gibson added: “To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. I just feel like we’ve got to get one. We’re going on the road. It’s going to be a hostile environment. We’ve been there before. We just have to key in and look at the tape and see if we can get better. That’s one thing about the playoffs. It’s always a 12-round battle, every game.”
But for all of the fighting analogies the Bulls use and the commanding-officer aura Thibodeau projects, turning around this series will depend more on the coach at least being willing to deviate from the norm than thinking that the same predictable approach, just with more force—when it comes to adjustments, he often asks rhetorically, “Are we doing it hard enough?—will do the trick. If not, instead of the pre-series assumption that defeating the lower-seeded Wizards, then playing reeling division rival Indiana (which evened its series Tuesday against eighth-seeded Atlanta, by the way) gives the Bulls a favorable path to the conference finals, a week from now, there might only be discussions of a plucky regular season and a premature playoff exit.
Again, knowing the character this Bulls team has displayed, that’s hard to fathom, but nobody expected them to be in their current predicament in the first place.