The Chicago Bulls -- organization, not team -- spent the final hour leading up to Tuesday night's Game 2 meeting with the Philadelphia 76ers hyping up a pregame surprise, something that was promised to be "awesome" by no less of an authority than next-level rabble-rousing mascot Benny the Bull. What transpired was curiously low on special effects. It was almost morbid.
The ace up the United Center's sleeve, apparently, was a hobbled Derrick Rose, who took the court in street clothes to present the game ball just before tip-off. If the sight of Rose limping with a bulky knee brace for an unwanted photo op was supposed to be the Bulls' "win one for the Gipper", it missed the mark. The crowd cheered because they had to, because Rose is the lifeblood of this city. But, more than anything, it served as a tangible reminder that, yes, Derrick Rose has sustained one of the most serious injuries in sports, and he won't be coming back anytime soon. If this was intended as a rallying cry or a pump-up tactic, perhaps the Bulls need to reexamine their methods.
The Chicago Bulls played 27 games without Rose in the regular season, and they played them admirably. Chicago finished 18-9 sans Rose, a number you've surely seen thrown around often in recent days. Rose is far from the chief reason these Bulls find themselves with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, to be sure. Yet, while Chicago was fending off the likes of Miami and Orlando without the reigning MVP during the season, there was always a collective sense in the back of minds belonging to both players and fans that Rose would be back. Even at their worst, his injuries were more nagging than debilitating. "Rest up, get back for the playoffs" proved to be the company line. The Prodigal Son would return, and lead his hometown team to playoff salvation.
Perhaps it was always just wishful thinking. Rose's torn ACL in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia ended his season on contact. The bailout option has been terminated, and just getting back to the court will surely be a long and treacherous path for our introverted superstar. He's not coming back now, and the team knows it. But at least for a half in Game 2, it didn't seem to matter.
Everything about Chicago's first half performance in Game 2 was reassuring. It showed why this 50-16 team was so special. The ball movement was pristine, the frontcourt was dominating. Joakim Noah was crossing bitches over and firing off finger gunz with reckless abandon. Carlos Boozer was hitting his jumpers, even if stepping into the painted area apparently makes his blood turn to sand. John Lucas III did his thing in typically mystifying fashion, which is to say he left everyone in the building screaming "no, no, no......YES". This was the team that earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
And then the second half started and it all went to shit. Even with the Bulls holding an eight-point halftime lead, Philly still shot 52 percent in the first half, a number that surely pushes Tom Thibodeau's hairline back further and further. When the game ended? The 76ers had shot a startling 59 percent as a team, and the denizens of the United Center were left wondering if a Rose-less existence is even worth the trouble.
The third quarter was about as sorry as Chicago has looked all season. Philly imposed their will on the Bulls en route to a 36-14 quarter that swung tides and essentially put the game out of reach. Philadelphia did not miss. If one side effect of Rose being out is opposing point guards shooting 73 percent from the field, Chicago's postseason run might be shorter than we anticipate. Jrue Holiday was magnificent in powering the Philly attack. When Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams added emphasis to what was already turning into a beatdown with vicious slam dunks, the Bulls felt more like a victim of abuse than the standing opposition.
So: the series will head back to Philadelphia tied 1-1 after the awful bout of luck these Bulls suffered in Chicago. While Thibodeau has made a habit out of saying his team "has more than enough to win", it's fair to wonder if that's off. The head coach isn't lying, but he just might be wrong.
The 76ers present real matchup problems for Chicago, and that could have been said even with Rose in tow. Philadelphia had beaten Chicago by an average of 11 points per game before the Bulls finally conquered them in Philly on March 4 thanks to final minute heroics from Rose. Yes, the 76ers were miserable in the second half of the season and tumbled down the Eastern Conference standings because of it. But there's a lot of talent here, and if it again rushes up to the surface level, Chicago will have their work cut out for them. I still think a second round appearance is highly probable, but it's hardly guaranteed.
The Bulls have made their bread by dominating the glass, particularly on the offensive end, and that has nothing to do with Rose. In Game 2, they were out-rebounded 38-32. When Philly started hitting a few three-pointers, even Chicago's outside advantage was negated.
The simple fact is that Philly matches up very well with our Bulls. Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer are more similar than they should be. Iguodala is probably a better player than Deng when Lu is fully healthy, and he certainly isn't right now. For what Rip Hamilton gains in experience, Evan Turner and Lou Williams take it back with youthful legs and added athleticism. The center spot is where the Bulls really have an advantage, but it wasn't enough on Tuesday, even with Noah finishing with 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting.
Without Rose, the Bulls simply couldn't find a way to get easy buckets. Yes, as the point guard, it's Rose's job to set his teammates up for those, but he's also the team leader when it comes to drawing fouls. Without him, Chicago struggles to get to the free throw line immensely. It makes a difference. Boozer averaged a career low 2.1 free throw attempts per game this season. Hamilton, who averaged 5.2 free throw attempts just two years ago, also had a career low this year of just 1.3 attempts per contest from the charity stripe. Easy buckets come in transition and at the foul line. Without Rose, those easy buckets are much harder to come by.
All isn't lost for Chicago, but this has unquestionably turned into a real series. The Bulls are still favored to win, but it will be no cake walk. The 76ers are legit, at least when they aren't shooting themselves in the foot like they did so often in the second half of this season. The Bulls will need to get to basics in Philadelphia, which starts with defense and rebounding. Assuming it happens, there's no reason to worry these Bulls are doomed for a first round exit. But credit the 76ers for even putting the thought in Chicago's head during that ungodly third quarter of Game 2. This will be a hotly contested series, even if it's short on fun. "Fun" left the equation after Game 1. Now the Bulls play out of a sense of obligation, and not some higher calling.