Before Game 5 tipped off on Tuesday at the United Center, Comcast SportsNet reporter Aggrey Sam noted there was a "last day of school feeling" among the media at the stadium. A day earlier, Tribune beat writer K.C. Johnson told WSCR "we all know this has a funeral feel to it."
Given all of the distinct mountains that formed over the course of the Chicago Bulls' blazing 50-win regular season campaign, best in the NBA, it seemed curious those around the team sensed a premature demise, even if their logic was sound and their reasons were obvious. The Bulls had lost three straight to the 76ers and were without reigning MVP Derrick Rose and firecracker center Joakim Noah. The offense was downright limp; their shoulders, according to these same reporters, were collectively slumped.
Sportswriters are often faulted for reading too much into defeated body language, though I assume that type of tangible difference in posture is striking after being around the same dudes for six months. But while chalking up Chicago's 77-69 victory over the 76ers on Tuesday to stay alive in 2012 NBA Playoffs to some "ability to overcome" narrative seems obvious, it doesn't strike me as accurate. Yes, the Bulls' brought their own signature take on "grinder ball" to the UC last night, but this wasn't the type of inspired victory that shoots new life into a desolate scenario.
The Bulls battled and the Bulls survived on Tuesday, which is all that matters. But, more than anything, Game 5 only served to reinforce what the previous three games of the series also showcased: these two teams -- the depleted Bulls and the fully healthy 76ers -- are not particularly good. The Bulls did enough to win on Tuesday to extend their season, but thank goodness they were matched up against a troupe as poor as these 76ers.
If this opponent showed a pulse, Game 5 could have been the living wake those covering the team suspected.
Chicago certainly deserves much credit for their astounding defensive effort in Game 5. It's not like the 76ers are the Bobcats or the Wizards -- there's talent here, and the Bulls held it to 69 points in a potential closeout game. That they did this without Noah, their best defensive player, might rank as one of this team's greatest accomplishments all season. But the Bulls' very real problems were not fixed in Game 5. If anything, a slew of astounding, clutch three-pointers from Luol Deng and a few falling rainbow jumpers from Carlos Boozer served as a bandage over a bullet wound. These Bulls still aren't good, and it's becoming obvious that without Rose and Noah, they never will be. For a night, it didn't matter.
When basketball is at its best, it's the most engaging sport our planet has. It's graceful and elegant. It can make you believe in the power of the human body; it can almost be like watching a very convincing magic show. But the brand of basketball Bulls-76ers has turned into doesn't fit any of this. Instead, it more closely resembles NFL football: one long war of attrition, with toughness, strength of will and the ability to withstand a blow to the body serving as the most essential components to victory.
The Bulls were the more brute, determined team on Tuesday and won because of it. Philadelphia missing all of those three-pointers helped, too.
Game 5 did feature a handful of spirited performances out of our Bulls. Taj Gibson's four blocks in the second quarter crushed Philly's soul during a miserable 10-point period for the 76ers. Gibson was also the main character in a first half scrum that some will lazily credit as one that breathed new life into the team. That Gibson returned in the fourth quarter after badly rolling his ankle in the third quarter is perhaps the most distinct moment of the game: just as a familiar feeling of dread started to wash over the fanbase, Gibson returned and helped Chicago secure the victory.
He wasn't alone. Ronnie Brewer deserves adoration in this space as well. He played 29 minutes in Game 5, more than Kyle Korver and Richard Hamilton combined, after not playing at all in Game 3. He caused havoc defensively. He reminded us that he's a part of this team, which is perhaps his greatest accomplishment of all.
The Bull still have their problems. Philly held a 24-11 edge in free throws last night, which becomes more disconcerting when Chicago only made four of them. This team has a way of making things very hard for itself offensively. The Bulls don't get out on the fast break, they don't get easy buckets at the foul line. It all goes into making this one of the least aesthetically-pleasing NBA playoff series I can remember. This might not be "basketball as fun", but it certainly fits our own bizarre definition of "Chicago Tough".
The Bulls travel to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Thursday. If they can find a way to win, it's difficult to imagine them losing Game 7 at the United Center. But Chicago's decidedly gutsy Game 5 victory didn't do much to instill confidence. This is trench warfare, and that isn't changing. Another sloppy, hard-fought game is ahead of us. Win it and I might start to get excited.