After the Cleveland Cavaliers announced that Kevin Love would not be available for the Eastern Conference semifinals (and likely the entire playoffs) with a shoulder injury, and the NBA announced that J.R. Smith would be suspended for two games for striking Jae Crowder of the Celtics in the head, one team appeared to benefit: Chicago.
On Monday afternoon the Bulls were already penciled in to be the Cavs’ second-round opponent. They were up 3-1 on the Milwaukee Bucks, poised to finish off the series on Monday night.
A strong defensive performance by Milwaukee denied Chicago of that cakewalk. The Bucks held the Bulls to 34.4 percent shooting from the field, including a 4-for-22 clip from beyond the three-point line, in a 94-88 victory. The deer will now go back home to try and force a seventh game.
The one positive for Chicago at this point in time is that they have history on their side, no team has ever come back from down 3-0 to win an NBA playoff series. A Milwaukee comeback is still improbable.
However, many aspects of the past two games have given this series a doomsday feel for the Bulls. They have not shown the dominance they showed in the first two games, nor have they shown the resilience and never-say-die attitude they showed in their thrilling double-overtime win in Game 3.
Fairly or unfairly, much of the focus and blame is going to be placed on Derrick Rose. The superstar point guard is healthy in the postseason for the first time since LeBron was ringless, and he played the hero role in that Game 3, but the past two games have been far from Vintage Rose, and the criticism comes with the territory.
In Saturday’s Game 4, Rose scored 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field, but committed eight of Chicago’s 28 turnovers and lost track of Milwaukee’s Jerryd Bayless on the final play. Bayless converted the buzzer-beating layup and the Bucks avoided the sweep.
In Monday’s Game 5, Rose had a much worse showing. He went 5-for-20 from the field, including an 0-for-7 mark from three-point, and also committed six of Chicago’s 12 turnovers. His defense on Michael Carter-Williams may have cost the Bulls the game, however. Carter-Williams torched the 2011 MVP to the tune of 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting, each bucket coming off the dribble.
When your $94 million man, the face of your franchise, is getting outplayed by a second-year player who is in his first postseason, you have a very big problem on your hands. The performance not only affects D-Rose, it affects the entire team; watching your leader get handled that easily definitely hurts morale.
Rose is certainly not the only problem in the Windy City right now, however; the Bulls have been dominated in most facets of the game the past few days. Chicago got outrebounded 82-79 in games four and five despite being the second-best team on the boards in the regular season; the Bucks were 26th. They committed 38 turnovers in those games, about five more per game than they averaged in the regular season (the Bucks have actually forced the most turnovers in the league, so coach Tom Thibodeau and his staff should have made the proper preparations). The Bulls have shot 41 percent in those games, even worse than their 44 percent clip in the regular season, which was ninth-worst in the league.
Could reports that Thibodeau is going to be fired at season’s end be factoring into the team’s poor performance? Possibly. Clashes with the front office can demoralize team unity and ruin chances at a championship run. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A divided house cannot stand.” Just ask Bucks coach Jason Kidd about how a power struggle can change the course of a coaching career. If the general manager and coach are not on the same page, there could be catastrophic results on the court at the most crucial point in the season.
“Fear the deer” may have started as a cheeky playoff slogan for a franchise that has toiled in mediocrity for quite a long time, but it is now serving as a warning for the mighty Bulls: don’t punch your tickets to Cleveland just yet. If you go through the motions, you may find yourselves on the wrong side of history.