The last 24 hours haven't made the Bulls' Game 4 loss any easier to swallow. As with all the great stomach-punch games, the bad vibes from this one got worse before they got better. Better being a relative term.
It hasn't felt like a wake, the way the Bears NFC championship loss to the Packers did, but it's pretty close. The Bulls, after cruising so far and so fast this season, jerked the wheel into a bridge abutment in Miami and are in are now in intensive care. The season is touch-and-go. Critical condition seems as appropriate a phrase as any. When the Bulls tip off Game 5 at 7:30 Thursday night at the United Center, they will be playing for their lives.
I could dive into how much Game 4 sucked, but I won't. Rather, I'm finding it amazing to think that this incredible run could come to such an abrupt end. I think it's fair to say that this year has exceeded expectations, but somewhere during the second half of the season when the kool-aid got passed out, I enjoyed a nice tall glass. Now this just hurts, as the idea of the league's winningest team, one with an MVP, a Coach of The Year, an Executive Of The Year, hell, even a 12th Man Of The Year award could be over as of tomorrow night is frankly pretty shocking. How did things go so badly so quickly?
Statistics say that 96% of the NBA teams to trail 3-1 in a series end up losing. And that's before factoring in the Thunder's series-ending loss to the Mavericks on Wednesday night. I could burn a couple thousand words on what's gone wrong and what it all means. But that is a post for another day... and hopefully never.
Crazier things have happened. That's all I'm going to say. Crazier things. Have. Happened. As Derrick Rose might say, why not three straight?
With no hyperbole (finally!), I can say that this is a must-win game for the Bulls. So before we go through the minutia of what it will take to win, it's time to pull out all the stops.
It's rather freeing to have every cliché at one's fingertips, if only for a single column.
The goal is not to think about the series but to think about Game 5, a task made more difficult by the fact that the Bulls are human. Yes, even Omer Asik, who despite being the recipient of my favorite personal nickname (The Turkish Plow), suffered a broken leg in Game 3 and then, incredibly, was allowed to play on it for Game 4. Not surprisingly, he couldn't play through, again, A BROKEN LEG and has since been declared done for the series. After going so far as to confront then-coach Vinnie Del Negro -- reportedly jabbing him in the chest for playing Joakim Noah extra minutes while he was recovering from plantar fascitis -- it's hard to believe that John Paxson or any other member of the front office would allow a rookie seven-footer with gigantic promise to risk further damage to a big-time injury. Boy it's a good thing there's not a long history of big men healing poorly from leg injuries (COUGH Yao Ming Greg Oden Sam Bowie Andrew Bynum et al COUGH).
But as we look for the positives heading into a do-or-die (cliché!) game, it's best to begin at the United Center. In case you'd forgotten, the Bulls went 36-5 at home during the regular season. They have followed that up with a 6-2 playoff record, the two losses occurring in Game 1 of the semis versus the Hawks and Game 2 against the Heat. The two playoff losses were horrible to watch, as Chicago couldn't throw it into the ocean in either game and although they had a chance late, couldn't overcome it on those nights. That said, I look at the way both home games of this series went and the Bulls felt like the better team in both games. At the very least there was no semblance of the superiority Miami has displayed in South Beach, where apparently all of their talents lie. As much as the last three games have done to vaporize good feelings from this season, let's not forget how unbelievably hard it is for an opposing team to win in the UC.
Rose is a player that, up until Game 4, has always answered the call in big games. And while the expectations for the 22 year-old are through the roof, anyone who watches basketball knows how transcendent LeBron James can be. Call me crazy, but I never thought Rose was better than LBJ. I just liked him more. So it comes with a heavy heart but not a lot of surprise that LeBron won the matchup between the two superstars. LeBron's been there and taken his licks before. Rose, up to this point, hasn't. Game 4 was his first taste of being on the receiving end of a classic playoff performance. The idea of Derrick Rose coming back from an off-night (he almost always bounces back), in the biggest game of his life (bright lights make him shine), and a chance for redemption (takes any perceived slight personally) has me thinking good thoughts. Now is not the time to doubt Rose, Chicago. He will answer the call.
The rest of the Bulls' core continues to play well, although Noah has been a walking facepalm when looking for his own shot on offense, and Carlos Boozer has been such a defensive trainwreck that I have started drinking shots every time he rotates properly. I had two on Tuesday. Luol Deng is just a rock though, giving the Bulls everything he's had for 82 games and 15 grueling postseason tilts. No matter how this final battle shakes out, I think we can all agree that Deng has reached full-fledged Beloved status in the Windy City. The Bulls will need big games from three of their top four players to win Game 5. You can pretty much pencil it in for Lu.
Can the Bulls win three in a row? Right now, who cares? This is about winning Game 5 and figuring out the rest later. The hope is that Thibodeau's everything-exactly-the-same-always routine helps his team focus in. That Rose finds the daylight he needs and we get to hear one more UC pop from a D-Rose dunk. That three pointers actually go in at a respectable rate. That Kyle Korver gets to have at least one effective stint in this series. That Noah claps good and loud in between a bunch offensive boards and a few of those lefty hooks. That the Bench gets to mob one more time (this one's for Omer!). That Boozer screams And-1 and is actually right about it for once. That the Bulls remind us all what we fell in love with for 97 games and counting.
It's been too good of a trip to end this quickly, Heat be damned. But no matter what happens in Game 5, I will be there soaking up every second of it, clapping and facepalming and wooing all the way, for no other reason than one of the most enjoyable Bulls' teams of my life deserves it.