clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Bulls should have won the East, but blew it

New, comments

It seemed like the stars might align in Chicago this season, but familiar downfalls prevented the Bulls from reaching their potential.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The sell-out crowd the Chicago Bulls have drawn to the United Center for over two decades defines itself differently every game. Most nights, the atmosphere at the UC can be described as "corporate," a nice way of saying it's drab and uninspiring. In big moments, though, the building can come alive and be as loud and emotional as any home court in the NBA.

Recent Bulls teams have given their fans reasons to stand up and out. There was Nate Robinson's fourth quarter explosion to beat the Nets in Game 4 of a 2013 first-round series. There was the victory to snap the Heat's 27-game winning streak the same season. Just days ago, Derrick Rose's game-winning, buzzer-beating bank shot made the building roar in a way that was reminiscent of the infamously loud Chicago Stadium.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers coming to Chicago for Game 6 on Thursday night, the United Center was begging for the chance to prove itself. The Bulls had their backs against the wall in an elimination game, but they routinely seemed to thrive that way. If this season was going to be it for Tom Thibodeau, perhaps Game 6 would be one last reminder of his team's characteristic resilience.

As it turned out, the Bulls never gave the arena a reason to get loud. The Cavaliers held the Bulls to only 42 points on 29.8 percent shooting after the first quarter to walk away with a series-clinching 94-73 victory. The only startling thing about Cleveland's win was how easily it was earned.

This was, in just about every way, a microcosm of the Bulls' season. A suffocating offensive drought struck in the second quarter and never relented. Kirk Hinrich, the one thing Thibodeau and the front office could agree on, played 20 minutes without recording a point, rebound or assist. Instead of getting beat by great players, Chicago saw its season ended by Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and Iman Shumpert, while Kyrie Irving applauded from the bench.

Thibodeau's Bulls always exemplified a certain fortitude, but that often just wasn't the case this season. Too many times lottery teams beat them on their home floor. In what will go down as Thibodeau's swan song, they lost a Cavaliers team without Kevin Love, without Irving for most of the night and with LeBron James only playing a supporting role rather than doing the heavy lifting. It was a bitter but fitting note to a season where the Bulls' reality never caught up with their potential.

This was supposed to be the Bulls' best chance to get to the Finals. Rose returned after three straight missed postseasons. Jimmy Butler suddenly and incredibly broke out as an NBA All-Star. Carlos Boozer was let go and the skilled offensive repertoire of Pau Gasol was added. Nikola Mirotic was occasionally fantastic in his rookie season, giving Chicago the type of frontcourt depth that was the envy of every other team in the league.

For a multitude of reasons, they just never came together. Joakim Noah had knee surgery for the first time in his career before the season started and never came close to regaining the form that landed him fourth in MVP voting just last season. Taj Gibson battled injuries and even Rose's "healthy" season required another knee surgery.

All the while, the team fell off from the defensive juggernaut it had been. After finishing top five in defensive efficiency for its first four seasons under Thibodeau, the Bulls fell to 11th. The offense had better pieces, but consistently looked stagnant and unimaginative. Whenever it felt like this team might catch its stride, something would invariably go wrong and everything would fall apart.

As the offense continued to struggle in Game 6, it was easy to think back to the first loss of the season -- the franchise's failed free agent pitch to Carmelo Anthony. In the end, the Bulls needed a thoroughbred scorer who could carry them through such droughts. Despite Butler's boon, this year's offense always needed a little bit more than what Aaron Brooks and Hinrich provided.

The window for this team isn't closing any time soon: Rose is only 26, Butler is 25, Mirotic is 24, Tony Snell grew in his second season, Doug McDermott might give them something next year and Gibson will only be 30. it's just hard to tell what the identity the Bulls will assume without Thibodeau in charge and with the front office looking for change.

The future could still be bright but the present was wasted in the bleakest way possible. With Cleveland's injuries amid another seemingly weak crop of Eastern Conference contenders, it appeared as if the stars were aligning for Chicago. When Rose banked in his game-winner, the always unlucky team finally stumbled into some good fortune.

But fortune could only take them so far. The 2014-15 Bulls just weren't good enough.