Tom Thibodeau isn't afraid to repeat himself. Listen to the Bulls coach talk at any point during his hyper-successful three-year start in Chicago and you are bound to hear a few familiar phrases. "Don't skip steps" is one, a common platitude Thibodeau can be heard barking at reporters before or after every game. The other isn't as much of a cliche as it often appears to be a direct lie: no matter what type of adversity the Bulls are going through on any given night, Thibodeau is ready to tell you his team has "more than enough to win with."
This entire season has felt like an outright gauge of the latter, with the Bulls facing a seemingly endless set of calamity put solely on this planet to test Thibodeau's mantra. During his first year in Chicago, Thibodeau took the Bulls from a 41-win eight-seed in the East to the 62-win juggernaut, the team with the best regular season record in basketball. He followed that up by posting an almost identical wining percentage the next year, even as Derrick Rose missed 41 percent of the team's games with a wide variety of injuries before eventually blowing out his ACL and effectively killing two seasons at once.
No one thought the Bulls would be without Rose for this entire season, yet here they are as the five-seed in the East. They did this even after their penny-pinching ownership stripped the team of its valuable bench in the offseason, even after so many of the complementary parts meant to surround Rose also battled nagging injuries throughout the campaign.
Kirk Hinrich missed 22 games with seven different injuries during the regular season. Taj Gibson is still playing through a sprained knee. Joakim Noah has been battling plantar fasciitis for months -- it's still so bad Noah himself didn't think he'd be able to play in the postseason before the start of it. Luol Deng hasn't had ligaments in his left wrist for a year and half.
Through it all, the Bulls still had 'more than enough to win with' on most nights, despite all logical evidence to the contrary. At this point, the Bulls have been through so much adversity that there's an omnipresent sense they can overcome whatever cruel twist of fate comes next. During Thursday's Game 6 against the Brooklyn Nets, with the Bulls having the opportunity to advance to the second round in front of their home crowd, Thibodeau might have faced his most ridiculous set of circumstances yet.
Hinrich was ruled out for the second straight game with a calf injury, a blow more devastating than it would appear based only on his numbers. Hinrich is far from great, but the Bulls were 38-22 with him in the regular season and 7-15 without him. His steady hand is vital for a team without an NBA-level point guard behind him. And to make things worse, Deng, Gibson and Nate Robinson had all apparently come down with some rather severe flu-like symptoms.
Deng was seen walking around the locker room shivering before the game, and was later ruled out completely. Given everything Deng has played through the last three years, there was no doubt the forward must have been really sick to miss a potential close-out game. We'd later find out just how bad of shape Deng was in: he was given a spinal tap to test for viral meningitis, a test that came back negative.
Robinson and Gibson were in slightly better shape -- they didn't need this thing stuck into their backs, at least -- so they would play, even though both wore towels on their heads and layers of clothing on the bench to try to keep them warm. During Robinson's first stint on the bench, a team employee slid a garbage can to him, which Robinson would throw up into with his teammates playing for a chance to advance in the playoffs just feet in front of him.
This was adversity to the point of comedy.
Bulls-Nets has quietly been a very good first-round series, even if the rest of the nation might not be aware of it. It doesn't have the amazing back-and-forth pace you'll see in the Warriors-Nuggets series or killer star performances you'll find in the Clippers-Grizzlies series, but every game has been competitive save for Game 1. When the outcome is hanging in the balance in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter, you can't ask for much more. Of course, Game 6 would be no different.
Even as a mound of evidence pointed to a slow, ugly game, Chicago and Brooklyn came out firing in the first half. The Nets shot 55 percent and the Bulls shot 54 percent, with each team riding balanced scoring attacks. It was 60-54 Brooklyn at the half.
The third was filled with missed shots (neither team cracked 30 percent from the floor) and turnovers, but the margin was just four points in favor of Brooklyn, setting the stage for another memorable fourth quarter.
The United Center was alive when Brook Lopez was called for traveling with four and a half minutes left, which led directly to a long two-pointer from Robinson, the type the Bulls have been reliant on all season. Chicago had the deficit down to two points, and it stayed that way for a while. The teams traded baskets until Nazr Mohammed made a layup with :25 seconds left to make it 93-92 Brooklyn.
After a pair of made free throws from Andray Blatche, quietly one of the stars of the series for the Nets, the Bulls had their chance. The ball would make its way to Marco Belinelli, who missed a good look at a corner three. Noah ran down the ball but stepped out of bounds. Even after the Bulls forced a jump ball in the backcourt with three seconds left to keep hope alive for one more dying chance, they couldn't corral the tip and the game was over.
Last season, the Bulls became just the third No. 1 seed to lose in the first round to a No. 8 seed after Rose and Noah went down with injuries. Now they go to Brooklyn for Game 7 with the possibility of being only the eighth team in playoff history to lose after holding a 3-1 series lead.
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Moments after Game 6 ended, a clearly frustrated Joakim Noah said he wasn't ready to let the season slip away. He took it one step further:
"I'm ready to play. I want to go play right now. That's my emotions," a fired-up Noah said afterward. "We're a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I'm proud of this team. We're going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we're going to win."
Game 7 will be a two-sided coin for the Bulls. On one hand, a victory would serve as the ultimate validation of this season, and proof that they can overcome almost anything. The Bulls think they'll be back among the NBA's elite next season with Rose in the fold, so a meeting with Miami -- no matter how overmatched they seem -- can only mean good things in terms of experience.
On the other hand, there's a sense that this Bulls season just needs to end. Amid constant non-updates on Rose and an endless string of injuries, the close of this season will mean the end of lots of frustration for the Bulls and their fans. Hand-wringing over Rose's refusal to play will only reach its greatest heights if his team is somehow able to advance to force a series with Miami. Given the health of the team, it's hard to envision the Heat having much trouble at all with the Bulls.
But you know LeBron and company will be watching Game 7, pulling desperately for the Nets. The Bulls have a long and storied history with Miami, sweeping them during James' first regular season with the Heat and splitting the season series last year and this year. The Heat would beat the Bulls, but not before Chicago punched them in the mouth. Given the beating the Bulls have taken all season, they don't want to bow out for good before they get to deliver a few more blows of their own.
If you didn't think the Bulls season would end this way, you haven't been paying attention. Game 7 on the road, injuries and odds stacked way against them. Who knows if Thibodeau's team will have enough to win with on Saturday, but NBA observers should know better than to count them out.