After playing a combined 10 minutes in two playoff games, both in the first round against Brooklyn, veteran Rip Hamilton was brutally honest about his nearly 22-minute stint in Monday night’s Bulls Game 3 loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“When the whole purpose of you coming was for the playoffs and not being able to get in and battle with your teammates, it’s hard,” Hamilton explained. “It’s rough. It’s not a cool thing at all, nothing I expected. You’ve just got to keep your head up high and help the guys out and be ready, and he put me in tonight.”
When asked his reaction to being told to check into the game after starter Marco Belinelli picked up his third foul with 10:19 left in the second quarter, Hamilton recounted, "Wow, I’m going in the game!"
Pressed on the subject, Hamilton responded to a query about whether he was surprised to enter the contest, “Yes! I bet you all were thrown off, too! Hey, it’s a crazy game. Sometimes you just have to be ready for that time.”
Despite the Bulls’ 88-65 defeat, Hamilton fared relatively well in his playing time.
After getting a nice applause from the United Center crowd, Hamilton missed his first shot, then drained his second attempt, a 3-pointer, much to the delight of the fans.
While he isn’t the two-time All-Star that he was during the prime years of his career, Hamilton is still capable of contributing and has a championship pedigree, which makes his absence from the Bulls’ undermanned lineup even more perplexing.
No offense to reserve swingman Daequan Cook, but Hamilton’s experience—as well as the fact that opposing teams still game plan for his trademark curl for a mid-range jumper off screens—warranted an opportunity to play for the injury-riddled squad long before desperation set in.
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Jimmy Butler clearly has established himself as the Bulls’ shooting guard of the future, and due to his ballhandling in pick-and-roll scenarios and deeper shooting range Marco Belinelli is the preferred alternative, particularly after outplaying Hamilton in the opening game of the first round against the Nets.
But after All-Star small forward Luol Deng’s illness held him out of the lineup, it’s unfathomable that Hamilton wasn’t an option for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has cited the veteran’s health as the reason why he’s fallen out of the rotation.
Not that Hamilton was a reincarnation of his former self, but even after being one of the lone bright spots—he had 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting, but both of the Bulls’ two triples (out of 17 attempts) and dished out four assists, as his presence clearly generated better ball movement—for the home team, Thibodeau implied that he only played because of circumstance.
“Marco picked up his third, so we were trying to generate something and we need everyone,” the coach explained. “I didn’t think our team played great, but I liked the fact that he got in there and he made some things happen.”
Hamilton refuses to cry sour grapes outright—after all these years in the league, including a messy ending in Detroit, his longtime stomping grounds, he knows better than to blast a team on his way out—but made clear that he believes that he still has something left in the tank.
“I don’t get into that. If this game proved it, it doesn’t even make sense,” he said. “But it’s just a thing where you say, ‘Hey, you know what? Stay ready, man.’ I’ve been here. I’ve played in a lot of playoff games before. It’s just tough that the situation is how it is.”
“You never know. It’s just one of those things where we’re already in the second round, so I’ve got to try to catch a rhythm fast. I’ve missed a lot of games,” continued Hamilton, who fared well—14 points, eight assists and no turnovers off the bench—in his last significant playing time, a late-season home win over New York, snapping the Knicks’ winning streak. “I missed the last 15 games of the year, played only three or four, but I didn’t play a whole lot of minutes. So now I’m like thrown in the fire. You don’t have any time to really think and you play off all instinct, and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Of his discussions with Thibodeau about the situation, the NCAA and NBA national champion reiterated that he finds it difficult to sit when he’s thrived at this juncture of the season throughout his career, particularly when the Bulls are so short-handed.
“Well, we talked. We definitely talked. It’s hard to understand, you know. But like I said, one of the biggest things for me was this was the purpose that I was brought here for and when you don’t play, it makes it hard, especially [because] I love these situations. My goal is to try to win a championship and to try to help my teammates, but it was from the sideline and I tried to help Jimmy out and help other guys out,” said the mid-range specialist, who added, “I’ll let you figure that out,” when asked if he was given a satisfactory explanation.
“A lot of stuff in life you don’t understand. This is what I was brought here for and to not be able to play, to not help my teammates, it’s hard. It’s rough, but I try to stay positive. I don’t try to rock the boat, just try to be positive with them, let them know what they need to do and tonight I got lucky. I got to be able to go out there and play.”
Meanwhile, his peers Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen—fellow shooting guards that he’s battled in the postseason for years, with success—are playing for the opposition and he hasn’t had the opportunity to counter them with his experience.
“It’s difficult. They’re probably happy I’m not playing, just from all the wars and battles that we’ve had over the past. But it’s something that you just want a piece of and you just have to sit there on the sideline,” said Hamilton, who noted that he “feels good” repeatedly. “That’s nothing I have to explain, but just getting an opportunity to get out there, it was fun to me.”
Still, with the Bulls unlikely to pick up his million-dollar team option for next season, Hamilton is loath to burn his bridges, as he plans to be in the NBA and making an important contribution to some team next season.
“Nah, you can’t be bitter. This league has always been great to me. I have fun enjoying something that I love to do and that’s play basketball,” he said. “Sometimes it’s going to go your way, sometimes you can’t control it. I couldn’t control it, so it’s like, ‘Hey, all right, you’ve got to deal with it.’”