As the Chicago Bulls slogged through the second half of their 109-92 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night—effectively tying the playoff series at one apiece—one couldn't help but hope they were taking their collective foot off the gas in order to make things interesting.
It's wishful thinking, of course, that they would tend to such melodrama, especially with coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm. But for all of the emotion this team (and its fans) mustered with the various rallying cries and gestures of solidarity, one would have thought it'd all be enough to at least make it interesting, let alone manufacture a win.
Then again, maybe all that crying for rallies was in fact melodramatic, and Tuesday was just the painful call back to reality.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm as guilty as any for believing emotion and effort is enough.
I, too, sent out some #WinForRose tweets before the game.
And even after their poor showing against the Sixers, I'm still naive enough to believe the Bulls have a fighting chance at the Finals (that's right, as in beating Miami).
But Tuesday's loss struck hard not because it took the home-court edge away, but because after all that rallying beneath the "Do it for Derrick" banner, it served as a jarring reminder of how flawed this team is without its superstar.
Sure, the 38-32 rebounding disadvantage and extremely leaky defense are not usual suspects on this team's rap sheet, and those were certainly factors in the Bulls' second-half meltdown.
I'm sure Thibodeau will lose sleep over the fact every Sixer on the floor except Jodie Meeks was able to score, and I'm sure there will be hell to pay at practice on Wednesday.
But as often as defense wins championships, offense is still needed to win games—something the Bulls will have trouble with if they can't find a way to distribute the ball more efficiently.
Chicago scored just 37 points in the entire second half—a total nearly matched by the Sixers' third quarter alone (36).
More telling, though, was C.J. Watson again showing difficulties in feeding the big men inside (allowing the Bulls to play "inside-out" like Thibodeau always preaches), and John Lucas III reminding everyone a basketball can be bounced at least a thousand times before being replaced (or passed to the open man).
So while we're quick to give the Bulls' reserve point guards passing marks, what we often fail to notice behind their streaky shooting is their inability to run the offense, which leads to shooting droughts like the Bulls' 0-for-11 in the third quarter.
Nearly every Bulls player outside of Rose (and perhaps Lucas or Watson, when they're hot) relies on ball and player movement to score.
Kyle Korver and Rip Hamilton need screens to get open. Carlos Boozer needs to get fed in the post and have enough room to maneuver. Luol Deng needs to be able to shoot an open, spot-up three-pointer or a receive pass while he's cutting to the basket. Joakim Noah needs misses and generous bounces from the rim (except when he's hitting his mid-range jumper, which he doesn't use enough).
But when you compare Watson and Lucas' combined contribution to team assists (seven out of 23) to Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday's (12 of 23), it's clear, at least for this game, Philadelphia's backcourt is more adept at getting their teammates involved.
So while the Sixers may not have a go-to scorer like Rose, their ability to distribute makes up for the deficiency (relatively speaking, anyway).
The point is, Chicago's backcourt was exposed on Tuesday, and their ineffectiveness shuts down the rest of the team's ability to produce.
Plenty of people have pointed to the Bulls' 18-9 record without Rose, but this loss reminds us regular-season records means very little in the postseason. Effort and emotion, though important, also play secondary roles.
What it comes down to is the ability to execute when it matters most—something usually reserved for superstars come playoff time.
And though I still believe the Bulls will make it out of this series alive (and still hang on to the thin hope that the Finals are still within reach), after Tuesday night the absence of a superstar's execution has never been more apparent.
It will take a lot of discipline—and some hot shooting—for Watson and Lucas to plug the holes Rose's fall left in his wake, and to pull off the miracle that has everyone's hopes rallying behind them.
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