As the Chicago Bulls impressively laid waste to the regular season slate despite a roster decimated by injuries, one of Tom Thibodeau's favorite cliches started to feel like a working thesis, if not an outright motto. Regardless of who was missing on a night-to-night basis, or how many times he'd already muttered the phrase in the same week, Thibodeau gamely answered questions on the status of his banged up team with same seven words: "We have more than enough to win."
Thibodeau's steadfast refusal to recognize even the most obvious built-in excuses had many painting the Bulls' coach as an emotionally stunted android. He was a ready-made meme. But Thibodeau was never oblivious to personnel impairments just as he isn't heartless, neither anatomically or anecdotally. Thibs simply believed, at least outwardly, what every coach has to: that if he could mine maximum effort and execution out of the players on the court, his team could conquer whatever amount of adversity was thrown its way. As the Bulls ran out to an 18-9 record in games without reigning MVP Derrick Rose, it became difficult to question his confidence. But in the aftermath of Chicago's 89-82 Game 4 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday afternoon to drop to the brink of elimination, it's becoming abundantly clearly for the first time all season that the coach's favorite quote may be a bit off.
The Bulls conquered plenty this season, but their latest set of hardships for once appears too colossal to overcome. The Bulls -- the top seed in the East and the team with homecourt advantage throughout the entire postseason -- are fighting for their playoff lives, down 3-1 to the 76ers. The current professional basketball outlook in Chicago is unmistakably bleak. It can all end so abruptly on Tuesday at the United Center in Game 5.
Rose's torn ACL in Game 1 turned the Bulls from a tried-and-true contender to a feisty and likable underdog overnight. Few expected Chicago would actually have trouble getting out of the first round, but that's exactly what has happened. Without Rose and starting center Joakim Noah, who badly sprained his ankle in the third quarter of Game 3, Thibodeau's team simply doesn't have enough talent to win in the playoffs.
After seeing the way this team has persevered and overachieved throughout Thibodeau's reign, it's hard for me to slam my fist and demand more out of the current troupe. The Bulls were unlucky all season, which only served to foreshadow the team's star-crossed playoff run. It takes a phenomenal amount of good fortune to win a championship. Whatever team wins it this season will certainly be able to count the Bulls' TKO'd roster as a break. This team could have won it all, but wasn't given a fair shake. Given that realistic title windows are constantly shrinking, it's a true local sports tragedy that a team so admirable never got a second chance to test its mettle against the Miami Heat.
The Heat have hung like a storm cloud over Bulls' entire campaign, but LeBron and D. Wade are the furthest thing from Chicago's mind at the moment. Figuring out a very uninspiring Philly team is the top concern, and it's fleeting. After another putrid offensive effort in Game 4, the Bulls' MASH unit has just one chance left to right the ship. If they slip up again, the season will be over.
Unlike the rest of the series, Game 4 was devoid of obvious narrative. Game 2 featured a swift and bruising third quarter run from the 76ers to place the first seeds of doubt. Game 3 had Noah's injury and the Bulls' own remarkable execution failures in crunch-time. On Sunday, Chicago lost simply because it wasn't good enough. No need to get cute with it.
Many in this city will pin blame on officiating, and it won't be misplaced. Faulting referees for wins and losses is never honorable, but the game's final minute (most notably) featured several questionable calls that went against Chicago and turned the tide towards Philly. Of course, if Thibodeau's team could hit a jump-shot, they never would have found themselves at the mercy of the officials.
Chicago and Philadelphia are both tremendous defensive teams, but the complete offensive abyss that has developed during the series is more of an indictment on shot makers and creators on each side rather than defensive perfection. These games are hard to watch. If stomaching this builds character, we'll all be stronger humans for enduring this nightly parade of bricks and turnovers when it's finally done.
The Bulls out-shot Philadelphia on Sunday by making exactly 40 percent of their shots. That isn't a typo. Chicago, who finished Game 4 34-of-85 from the field, was actually the more proficient shooting squad. But a gaping free throw disparity that proved glaring late and a pair of three-pointers by Philadelphia point guard Jrue Holiday sealed the 76ers' victory and put Chicago on the precipice of elimination.
While it would be hard for any team to play without its two best players, and with another All-Star playing through torn wrist ligaments, the Bulls' performance in this series has only shone a light on very real roster construction and personnel problems with this team.
It's easy to be fooled into believing Carlos Boozer, he of the $75 million contract, had a fine effort in Game 4. His box score reads 23 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. But Boozer also had five turnovers and blew multiple fourth quarter possessions with missed shots and bone-headed basketball plays. It's still too early to think about next season, there's plenty of time for that, but the option of amnestying Boozer should be seriously considered by the Bulls this off-season. He is certainly one of the chief culprits in Chicago's abrupt downfall.
The Bulls also need another scorer, likely in the backcourt. This is at times apparent even with a healthy Rose. Without him, Chicago's lack of dependable scoring options is almost sad. C.J. Watson is a fine backup, Rip Hamilton is coming to the end of a mighty career. This team needs to find another Ben Gordon. Whether that player exists on the trade market or in free agency (O.J. Mayo?) remains to be seen, but Chicago's weakness will continue to be obvious until it's corrected.
The Bulls now need to win three straight games to avoid being eradicated from the 2012 NBA Playoffs in the first round. It may sound crazy, but I do still believe they have a chance. It's more of a vote against this lousy 76ers team than a pledge of confidence towards Chicago's own hobbled crew. The Bulls come back to the United Center for Game 5, where they should be able to win. It's not like the Bulls were run off the floor in the last two defeats. Unless Philly plays flawlessly, like they did in the second half of Game 2, Chicago will have a decent enough chance against the 76ers however long the series lasts.
The Bulls are ultimately doomed, everyone knows it, but a first round exit is too feeble under any conditions for a team that has proven itself so determined. Whether the Bulls can delay their own death will be decided by their own preparation and proficiency. Even as this series has turned into a living wake, I still can't fully write off this team just yet.