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The Bulls Regress to the Bulls

Game 5 brought out the real Chicago, and it was ugly

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Chicago Bulls have played 87 games this season. You’d think at this point, they’d have a reasonably good understanding of which of their basketball players are good at basketball, and which of them are good at playing with each other. But in the 87th game — a pivotal Game 5 in a surprisingly tied series against the Boston Celtics — coach Fred Hoiberg tried lineups he’d never played together all year. Of the 18 lineups he played in Game 5, only three were among the top 250 he used during the regular season. For 26 minutes of a pivotal game, he played 15 lineups that had never seen the court for more than three minutes together during the season. Most had probably never played together at all.

Rajon Rondo’s injury forced some weirdness from the team. Isaiah Canaan got his first start of the year and clocked a season high in minutes. Anthony Morrow, who came to Chicago in a trade with Oklahoma City that theoretically centered on the now-inactive Cam Payne, put in 16 minutes. But while some of the lineup and rotation experimentation was a product of who was available, a lot of it came from the fact that the team has once again realized it doesn’t have any combinations of basketball players that happen to be good at basketball.

I was frightened by Games 1 and 2. Not because I’m a Celtics fan, or because I have any sort of ill will toward the Bulls as a franchise. Just because the Bulls’ success made me consider that I actually don’t know anything about this sport I get paid to write about. No, the Celtics weren’t a great 1-seed — in fact, they had the fewest wins of any top seed since 2007 and the lowest point differential of any since 1979 — but man, these Bulls.

On the rare occasions that 8-seeds win, they always seem to have some sort of captivating verve, some spirit that you can feel in the team that guides them. The Bulls’ spirit was one of discontent and drudgery. They have one great player, Jimmy Butler, and the front office surrounded him with aging stars like Dwyane Wade and Rondo. The most exciting things about the season were a feud and a television-station-based coincidence. I can say bad things about them, but you really should just read Bulls blogger Ricky O’Donnell saying bad things about them.

It was weird to see this team win two games against the supposed best team in the East. They were cohesive, resilient, and happy, three qualities they hadn’t exhibited all season.

In Game 5, Chicago hit a wall. They took a two-point lead into the fourth quarter, and in that fourth quarter Butler took only two shots while the Celtics outscored them 29–16. They’ve now lost three in a row, and it’s hard to imagine them winning the next two.

It’s stunning how unprepared they were to replace Rondo, in spite of a glut of players on the roster who could be used as guards. The Payne trade was one of the worst in recent memory, with the Bulls giving up multiple rotation players for somebody who has done time in the D-League and on the inactive list. They also traded for Michael Carter-Williams, who is now getting little more than spot minutes. They also used a first-round draft pick on Denzel Valentine, who has only played in garbage time in this series. They also inexplicably decided not to use Jerian Grant, who got a DNP-CD after some useful performances earlier in the series.

We got Canaan yelling at the significantly better Isaiah on the Celtics and Morrow slapping Kelly Olynyk hard enough to leave a mark and then getting yelled at by him. Morrow, hypothetically a 3-point specialist, didn’t attempt any shots from behind the arc. Canaan had 13 points, but went 1-for-5 from downtown and had four turnovers with no assists. (He was listed as the team’s point guard.)

This is how the Bulls’ postseason was supposed go: not with a stunning victory, but with their deepest bench players forced into action and oddly trying to start drama with much better players on a much better team.