The Chicago Bulls dropped their second consecutive home playoff game on Tuesday night, losing to the Washington Wizards by a score of 101-99 in overtime. By giving up the first two games at home, Chicago has not only relinquished home court advantage and spotted the Wizards a 2-0 lead in the first round series, but they have also dug themselves a hole in which only three other teams in NBA history have found a way to climb out of. If Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the roster there would be no cause for alarm, as basically anything seemed possible with those teams of the 90s. However, that was then, this is now, and after watching Tuesday night’s game, it became more evident than ever that the Bulls playoff woes are due to a lack of offensive talent.
Down by as many as 17 points in the first half, Chicago battled back just as they have been doing all season long and by the end of the third quarter they held a 75-72 lead. They would expand their lead to 87-77 with 6:59 remaining in the game, before they hit a scoring drought that allowed the Wizards to come back. Washington’s Bradley Beal had a chance to win the game on a final shot attempt but it was well contested by Taj Gibson and the miss sent the game into overtime. The Bulls scoring drought continued into overtime and had them clawing their way back, until they had a chance to tie on a pair of Kirk Hinrich free throws with two seconds left, but unfortunately he missed the first one and the Wizards rebounded the attempted miss to close out the game.
These scoring droughts are nothing new to Chicago as points have been difficult to manufacture at times for the past few seasons, but they have become even more apparent with injuries to top scorer Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng. Though Deng was an all-star, he was mostly a shooter who occasionally slashed to the rim and was known more for his perimeter defense, while Rose is an MVP caliber talent and the lone player on the roster who could manufacture his own offense while also creating for everyone else. In Tuesday’s game, D.J. Augustine put on his best Derrick Rose impersonation with 25 points and seven assists, while carrying the Bulls offense for a stretch in the third quarter. But by the time the closing minutes of regulation rolled around he was visibly tired, and in overtime he looked flat out exhausted. Taj Gibson added another 22 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, adding yet another strong performance to promote his case to be a sixth man of the year candidate. The starters, however, could not muster much of an offensive punch.
The Bulls, led by the 2014 defensive player of the year, Joakim Noah, play a grind-it-out style that forces teams into working hard for every single bucket. Through their strong defensive prowess and team rebounding ability they are often able to weather their offensive droughts by both limiting their opponents’ scoring chances and keeping their points to a minimum. However, Chicago is now finding that the same system which gave them success during the regular season is coming up short when it matters most, and it is clear to see that the Bulls playoff woes are due to a lack of true offensive talent.
It is no secret that Chicago has a difficult time scoring the ball as they were the lowest scoring team in the league this season, but it is not like there are no good players on the roster. This is not a team lacking in talent, but the problem is that the majority of their players skills all reside on the defensive side of the ball. In being a defensive minded guy, head coach Tom Thibodeau appreciates the effort his guys give on the defensive end, but at the same time, lacking true offensive weapons is the same thing that is giving him headaches. With their only true offensive threat Derrick Rose sidelined, and next best scorer Carlos Boozer being a liability on defense, coach Thibodeau is stuck in a bind and must often hope for defense to generate offense during portions of the game. As far as coaching and utilizing the roster to its maximum capacity, this may be coach Thibodeau’s best season yet. However, even coach probably realizes that his team’s margin for error is just too small to make a significant push.
Ultimately, the lack of point production has been the only thing holding the Bulls back from becoming a true championship contender the last several seasons. And though one could argue that this season’s roster may be their thinnest in the past five years, regardless of the circumstances, they still play like a winner. They have the coaching. They have the experience. They have the intensity. They play strong defense. They rebound and hustle to the ball. They are confident and do not back down from any team. But, they have difficulty scoring the ball. And when a team has trouble generating points they must play near flawless basketball in order to win in the playoffs.
The only three teams that have ever come back to win a playoff series after losing the first two games at home were the 1968-69 Lakers–who would eventually lose in the NBA finals to Bill Russell’s dynastic Celtics–the 1993-94 NBA champion Houston Rockets, and the 2004-2005 Dallas Mavericks who lost to Phoenix in the second round. However, those teams boasted either hall of fame, or future hall of fame scorers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Dirk Nowitzki. And without a healthy Derrick Rose, Chicago’s roster just simply does not have anyone in the same galaxy as those supreme talents on the offensive end.
Though Chicago and Washington have been in a similar situation before. Back in the first round of the 2004-05 playoffs it was the Bulls who took the first two games of the series before dropping the next four and being eliminated. Now they must hope for the same turnaround the Wizards had back then, only this time around, Joakim Noah and company will have to make magic happen primarily on the road. The Bulls playoff woes may be due to a lack of offensive talent, but if they can continue to grind on defense, secure rebounds, and win the hustle plays, they will have a chance to turn things around in game three on Friday. But ultimately, with Derrick Rose playing the suited cheerleader from the bench, the Bulls lack of scoring may prove to be too steep of a hill to climb.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky