Coming into the season anyone would have guessed that a late-season matchup between the Bulls and the Cavaliers would have been huge. These two teams were supposed to be contenders, after all. Alas, that's not how things turned out.
Cleveland held on to its part of the bargain, leading the East and looking to clinch the first seed in their visit to Chicago. The Bulls, on the other hand, limped into the game looking for a win that would keep them alive in the playoff race.
To the Bulls' credit, they won the game 105-102 thanks to a good fourth quarter. Yet while the math says they are not still eliminated, this quality victory reeks of being too little, too late for Chicago.
Not even the most pessimistic Bulls fans could have predicted how poorly this season was going to go. Fred Hoiberg's first year as an NBA coach was rougher than expected. Things got off to a bad start when he decided to bench Joakim Noah and say that it was his idea, something the center denied. Then Jimmy Butler called him out for his laid back coaching style, something Hoiberg blames for the poor performance that followed.
Hoiberg: "We got off to pretty solid start. Then some things happened. Most of that comes from the 1 comment after the NY game by Jimmy."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) April 9, 2016
The Bulls went 25-30 after that, including the win against the Cavaliers, alternating solid play with uninspired nights. They had stretches in which their talent shined through and a late-season surge looked possible and others in which it was clear that they lacked the cohesiveness to really be a threat. Injuries, which had derailed their season when they actually had the talent to compete, took a lot out of them, as Noah was lost for the year and Butler missed time.
Yet it feels like they were fundamentally flawed from the start. The front office kept the same roster that had disappointed in the previous season largely intact. Their identity as a defensive team slowly faded as Pau Gasol was slotted at center in the twilight of his career. Butler and Derrick Rose never really clicked and questions about leadership appeared. The wing was as undermanned as it had been for a while. This team simply wasn't built right, no matter the names on the roster.
Against Cleveland we caught a glimpse of the best version of these Bulls. The athletic Cristiano Felicio played almost as much as Gasol and Rose and Butler did a better job of splitting playmaking duties. Justin Holiday and Bobby Portis provided some energy off the bench and Nikola Mirotic had an efficient scoring night. It was still hard for them to beat a Cavaliers team that had very little bench production and an off night from Kyrie Irving, which speaks volumes as to their ceiling.
The Bulls could still sneak into the postseason. They need to win the last two games and hope for three Pacers' losses. Stranger things have happened.
It might be in their best interest, however, to just get this season over with, whether they know it or not. A playoff appearance might convince the front office that all is well, that dramatic change is not necessary. If that happens, next year at this time we will be once again wondering why the disappointing Bulls didn't learn their lesson.
2 other things we learned
The Hawks got a crucial win
The Celtics visited the Hawks on a matchup with huge seeding implications. Coming into Saturday both teams were tied at 47-32, which was the third best record in the East. A Boston win would have pushed them ahead in the standings while getting them close to securing the tiebreaker. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Atlanta won thanks to a great fourth quarter and now holds a one-game lead and clinched the season series.
The win is huge for the Hawks but they still have work to do if they want to secure the third seed. Their next opponent is Cleveland, which will be looking to clinch the No. 1 spot. The Heat are lurking just 1.5 games back and they hold the tiebreaker over Atlanta. Still, the Hawks won a big one against a tough opponent and are proving that they will be a tough out for whoever they end up facing in the playoffs.
After beating the Spurs decisively on Thursday, no one was really expecting the Warriors to struggle to handle the Grizzlies, even if the game was in Memphis. After all, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are out, so they were only facing Zach Randolph and a bunch of bench guys who have been asked to step up during a storm of injuries. They had dropped seven of their last eight and were on the second game of a back-to-back. How hard could it be for the best team in the league to beat them?
Very, as it turns out. The Grizzlies kept the game close throughout, made a move late in the third and early in the fourth quarter to get a double-digit lead and had the reigning champions on the ropes. The Warriors had to push themselves in order to get back in the game. It took a clutch three-pointer from Harrison Barnes and some good defense down the stretch to get the win. Memphis put up a fight on Saturday and will again next Wednesday, so the Warriors better be ready to battle if they want the record for most wins in the regular season.
Play of the night
How did C.J. McCollum get that shot to fall?