PHILADELPHIA — The Chicago Bulls have reached the point where rallying cries suddenly meet reality, where the devastation of the past two weeks becomes overwhelming, and where expectations of winning a championship when the playoffs began are overshadowed by a desire to merely get out of the first round.
Down three games to one to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bulls are one loss from becoming only the fifth No. 1 seed in NBA history to get upset by the eighth seed.
Derrick Rose, the reigning league most valuable player, has been relegated to offering support by delivering the game ball before opening tip, as he did before Game 2. Center Joakim Noah has been forced to pump up his teammates while wearing a suit and a walking boot, as he did during Game 4.
“We’re all upset. We’re all down. We’re just all going to keep on fighting,” Bulls all-star forward Luol Deng said as his team prepares to host Game 5 at United Center on Tuesday. “No matter how it goes out there, we’re all going to play hard. Even though we’ve got people down, we’re down 3-1, the belief is still in there.”
After an 89-82 loss to the 76ers on Sunday, Deng and Carlos Boozer sat next to each other on a bench in the visitors’ locker room at Wells Fargo Center with their feet soaking in ice and their heads buried in their hands. The Bulls weren’t supposed to be so dejected, so quickly this postseason, but they could hardly have planned to encounter the harshest of setbacks at the most inopportune time.
“Obviously D-Rose and Joakim, I think the series is very different if we have them,” Boozer said. “We’re missing two of our key components and we got guys that can step up and at different points in the season, we’ve had guys step up. We need that right now.”
The Bulls’ status as a contender always seemed tenuous, given that those prospects were based on them planning for a broken-down Rose to recover from a season plagued by injuries. Chicago served as an encouraging example of resilience in the regular season as it adapted Coach Tom Thibodeau’s “no excuses, next man up” approach to finish tied with San Antonio for the league’s best record at 50-16. The Bulls went a surprising 18-9 without the previously durable Rose.
But the NBA postseason is about superstars, and there was a certain comfort in playing hard and competing with the knowledge that Rose would eventually come back. The dynamic Rose was closing in on a triple-double in Game 1 before one of his usually explosive and aggressive hop steps ended with him collapsing into a heap.
Once that security blanket was taken away and Rose was gone after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the Bulls became vulnerable — no matter how much they had improved since losing to Miami last season in the conference finals. Beating Philadelphia became more of a challenge when Noah, the team’s energetic and spiritual leader, rolled his left ankle in the first half of Game 3.
“I’ve never seen so many injuries . . . in a playoff series. Especially key guys being out,” said Richard Hamilton, who won a title in Detroit in 2004 and was part of a Pistons team that rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Orlando in 2003. “You want to perform at your best, you want to win games and you want to win a world championship but nothing comes easy. If it was easy, everybody would have a championship.”
The Bulls were in position to win the past two games without Noah and Rose but lacked a true go-to guy in the final minutes. Failing to finish has fueled the discontent.
“We’re not in this for moral victories. We’re trying to win a championship,” reserve guard Kyle Korver said. “It’s not the way we thought the series would go. A week and a half ago, it was a lot different situation for us. This is the way it goes in the playoffs. That’s why you play the games.”
And the Bulls still have at least one more. “There is nothing we can do but win the next game, focus on the next game,” Thibodeau said.