So who said the Bulls weren’t a playoff team? Well, pretty much everyone six months ago. And those doubters looked fairly prophetic a few weeks back. But with Wednesday’s regular season closing 112-73 victory over the Brooklyn Nets junior varsity, the Bulls are ready to start again, ready to shock the NBA world.
They will start their playoff series 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Boston against the surprise No. 1 seed Celtics, a team against whom the Bulls were 2-2 this season.
“Tough team, no question about it. They’ve done an unbelievable job to get home court advantage and the No. 1 seed. But we’re a confident team, especially against the best teams that we’ve played this year. We know what to do to put ourselves in position to win. I think it’s going to be a tough series. It says 1-8, but I think it’s going to be a little tougher than that.”
What a relief for the Bulls. All their true nemeses, like the losing 76ers, Magic, Nets, Nuggets, Suns, Mavericks and Knicks, are out of the playoffs. And the Bulls can finally play those teams that are the easiest for them, like the Cavs, against whom the Bulls were 4-0, the Raptors, whom the Bulls beat two of three and lost in overtime, the Warriors and Spurs, whom the Bulls split with. OK, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But the regular season means something. The Bulls have shown they aren’t about to be intimidated by teams with better records or more famous players. They’ve got their share with Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls Wednesday with 25 points, Rajon Rondo, who returned from a wrist injury to get 10 points and five assists, and Wade. The Bulls also got a career high 21 points and five threes from Paul Zipser and 12 points and 10 rebounds from Bobby Portis.
The win over the Nets was almost an embarrassment when the now 20-62 team decided to “rest” its top players, like Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin. The Bulls went on to lead by double digits the last 36 minutes of the game, building to 24 points in the second quarter and 28 in the third. It was a franchise record second consecutive game with a winning margin of at least 39 points. The Nets had some cock and bull story about preparing for next season, though Nets insiders say the team intends to trade Lopez and Lin this summer and didn’t want to risk injury to either.
It wasn’t a good enough excuse for the Miami Heat, who tied with the Bulls at 41-41, but lost the tiebreaker for the playoffs. The Heat needed the Bulls or Pacers to lose Wednesday to get into the playoffs.
And so his Heat are out in the cold and Dwyane Wade is hot, back in the playoffs for the 12th time. And though this has been an elevator of a season for he and the Bulls, there’s now a second chance for everyone to get to the NBA penthouse and write a new story about this often confused and confrontational season.
“Now you throw the records out the window,” said Wade. “We’re preparing for the (second) season. That’s all we wanted to do. When training camp started, we talked about making the postseason and not just getting in, but when we get in, understanding that when we play the game the way we can and play the right way that we can beat anybody and we can make noise. Taking that confidence into this series. We had to get through 82. We got through 82. Now this is the fun part of the year. Me especially, this is what I play for. The grind of the season I play for this time of year; I am looking forward to it.”
And why not after one of the more difficult seasons in memory.
There was the wonderful start, 10-6 returning from the last circus trip as actually the circus went out of business. It seemed the Bulls might as they opened December beating the Cavs and Spurs and losing to the Mavs, Pistons, Timberwolves and Trailblazers and being blown out and dominated back to back by the Bucks.
And then it really got bad.
They lost for the second straight time to the Knicks in what would be a season sweep and then later in January after blowing a late 10-point lead against Atlanta, Wade and Butler went off on the team, though mostly Wade. Rondo, who’d been recently benched and not even playing, fired back defending teammates and chastising Wade. Everyone was fined, there was a team meeting with a lot of finger pointing and Wade and Butler were taken from the starting lineup. For a few minutes, anyway. It seemed like chaos. Then everyone’s favorite teammate, Taj Gibson, was traded along with the best three-point shooter, former lottery pick Doug McDermott. Point guard Cameron Payne came in and was hurt and sent to play in the D-league.
Yet, somehow the Bulls pulled out of the nose dive, coach Fred Hoiberg pointing to a crucial stretch of four straight recent wins over the Bucks, Hawks, Cavs and Pelicans as the game changer. And with seven wins in their last nine games and two early season wins over Miami, the Bulls were able to get into the playoffs on the last night of the season.
“I’m just going to say I’m proud of these guys for going through everything; wins, losses, injuries, trades, all the things we went through as a team to continue to stick together, to continue to find a way. That’s what it’s about, to find a way and we were able to accomplish that in our first year together; that’s all we should be focusing on.”
“It was a tough trade; two of the guys were in our top scoring. Obviously, Taj a veteran guy,” said Wade. “At times it looked darker than other times; no doubt about it. I give these guys a lot of credit. When I went out, especially, that guy over there, J.B., and that guy over there, Rondo. They really went up another level. We weren’t the only team in the NBA that had a challenging season. But at the end of the day our goal was to get into these playoffs and we were able to accomplish that. So I’m happy with this team now. I’m happy for all these young guys who are getting an opportunity to play, happy for the city of Chicago. I know (we) have more basketball left.”
But if the Bulls weren’t high on the preseason playoffs lists, and lower once the seasons began falling away, the Celtics were a head scratching surprise of their own for beating out the Cavaliers for the East’s top seed. Boston deserves credit for their own mystery, a sort of instead of who-dun-it, a how-did-they-do-it with basically one elite scorer and roster of role players.
In Butler, former Celtics champion Rondo and Wade, the Bulls have the more celebrated and decorated roster and the most playoff experience.
Just not the winningest team from this season.
Can that change over two weeks?
“It’s all about who is playing the best basketball at the right time,” said Butler. “I like any matchup we go up against. We’re a really good team. Now we have to go out and play that way. We can’t expect for things to just come lackadaisical. We have to go out there and deliver the first punch, and I think we are capable of that. I don’t think the goal here is just to make the playoffs. We want to win. That’s what we were talking about at the beginning of the year. I think we all did our job to get us into the playoffs. Now it’s about winning some games.”