MIAMI—This is nothing new for the Bulls, being counted out by a large segment of the basketball-viewing public.
But while facing a 3-1 series deficit in a road elimination game against the defending-champion Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals is clearly a daunting task, the Bulls are approaching Wednesday’s game with an aura of confidence.
“We never give up, no matter what. There’s always a chance. We believe in ourselves and we believe in us as a team and when you have that kind of belief and that faith amongst each other, you’d be surprised at what we can do,” point guard Nate Robinson, coming off a nightmarish 0-for-12 shooting night and a left-shoulder injury in Monday’s Game 4 loss in Chicago, declared prior to the team’s morning shootaround at American Airlines Arena. “Anything’s possible. We had Brooklyn down 3-1. They came back and made it to a Game 7, so anything’s possible.”
“Everybody’s counting us out, including you all, so for us, it’s going to be that much sweeter coming in here and getting a win tonight, proving all you guys wrong,” the diminutive scorer continued, singling out the assembled media. “It’s motivation, man. My whole life, people telling me I wouldn’t be able to make it to the NBA. Look at me now. God has blessed each and every one of us individually, and us as a team. We have what it takes. We’re going to give it our all. We’re warriors. And we’ll continue to be like that. We just know what it takes. We’ve been there before. So we’re ready.”
Carlos Boozer echoed a similar sentiment: “We have bounced back from adversity all year. We’ve been the underdog all season with the injuries we’ve had and we’ve always responded and we’ll respond tonight.
“It’s fun, man. Our backs are against the wall. We weren’t supposed to be here anyway. But we are. We look forward to it. Like I told everybody last series against Brooklyn, the closeout game is the hardest one to closeout on that side. On this side, we got nothing to lose. We can play free and hard and with passion like we always do. You never know what can happen,” the power forward added. “We feel good. Obviously we had a terrible game in Game 4, but we’ve always responded when we’ve had a bad loss.”
If the Bulls do beat the odds and extend the series to a sixth game Friday night at the United Center, they’ll again have to do it without the services of Kirk Hinrich, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the latter of whom didn’t make the trip to Miami, as he continues to recover from a medical ordeal that includes complications from a spinal-tap procedure.
“He’s still not feeling well,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of the All-Star small forward. “Obviously he wants to be here. He has to get better first. He has to prioritize his health.”
Of Hinrich, who Thibodeau described as “most likely out” because of a lingering left-calf injury, the coach said, “It’s improved some, but not good enough yet to where he could play.”
Thibodeau was evasive when questioned about whether Rip Hamilton’s 11-point outing in Game 4 warranted a permanent return to the rotation for the veteran shooting guard, who had previously only played in two postseason games for a total of approximately 10 minutes.
“We’ll see how it unfolds. You have to look at matchups and how the game is going. We didn’t play well as a team last game,” Thibodeau said. “You play as a team. We didn’t play well as a team. I’m not concerned about individuals. I’m concerned about how our team functions. That’s what I look at.”
Hamilton’s longtime rival, Chicago native Dwyane Wade, went through Miami’s morning shootaround, but is questionable for the evening’s contest, due to a knee injury, though Thibodeau believes the Heat shooting guard will suit up.
Regardless of who’s on the court for either side, the Bulls are focused on trying to stave off elimination with their typically one-track mindset.
“Play harder. Last game, we didn’t make shots. The first game we played here, we got a win. We played hard and made shots. That’s what it’s all about -- getting stops and making buckets. We shot horrible the last couple games. We’ll bounce back. Hopefully we’ll get stops and make buckets and play hard,” Robinson said. “We’re not getting involved in what they say. We worry about us. We worry about the Bulls and trying to get a win and that’s what we’re focused on. We’re going to try to get that done tonight.”
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Boozer chimed in: “Yeah, it would be nice to have had our whole squad healthy in the playoffs to see what kind of damage we could do, but we’re not in that situation this time either and we’re just dealing with it.
Their coach’s opinion of the situation jibed with his players’ mentality.
“All we’re thinking about is Game 5, first quarter. That’s it. You have to go step by step. We understand what we have to do and that’s it,” Thibodeau explained. “To me, it’s be ready for the first quarter. We’ve been down this road. We understand what needs to be done. And that’s all we’re focused in on. Not any of the what-ifs or any of that. We understand the task at hand and understand what needs to be done. Now we have to get it done."
Robinson in particular will have to exhibit extreme focus in order to bounce back from his difficulties on Monday. The playoff hero will certainly face much more of an athletic Miami team trapping him whenever he has the ball in his hands in an attempt to force other players on a Bulls team lacking offensive firepower to score.
“It’s a new day today. Everybody goes through a situation like that in their life, ups and downs. To me, it’s just God testing me and I’m going to pass the test tonight. It always does. For me, I’m just going to continue to play hard, no matter what. No matter if I go 0-for-12 tonight,” said the instant-offense scorer, who noted that he’s “feeling good. I’ll be ready tonight,” when asked about his shoulder injury.
“They have a great group of guys on that team. It’s nothing they’re doing individually. I really don’t feel anybody in this league can guard me individually one-on-one. They’re doing a great job of trapping me. That’s the game plan. When guys come in, they’re doing a great job of it. It’s not about one guy stopping one guy. It’s a team game. They’re doing a great job of trapping me and making me pass the ball and that’s fine. That’s what basketball is. We’ll make adjustments and be ready,” he continued. “We have to get our main guy Carlos Boozer going and guys like Marco. Then the focus can be on them and not as much on me or Jo or Jimmy. We can create in other ways. However it comes, we’re letting the game come to us. At the same time, we’re trying to create and make things happen.”
But as much as the Bulls’ success comes down to adjustments and execution, that familiar chip on their shoulder remains, as evidenced by Robinson bristling at a query about league MVP LeBron James.
“You guys write the stories, man. I don’t know. The man must be perfect,” he responded. “We just try to come in, try to play as hard as we can and try to handle business tonight.”
And try to ensure that the improbable run of the undermanned squad lasts another day.