Fans start to throw in the towel on the Bulls season
Just moments after the Bulls finished a classic Chicago sports collapse that would have made the Cubs proud, a frustrated fan fired his "rally towel" into the press box. The small piece of cloth, white except for a red image of an Afro-coiffed Ben Wallace, landed on my laptop computer as I was writing this award-winning piece of journalism.
Yes, the fan was throwing in the towel after Thursday night's 81-74 loss to the Pistons, and I don't blame him. Down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals to a Detroit team that is superior in every way, the Bulls have as much chance of winning four straight games as I have of starring in a shampoo commercial.
And yes, Wallace should have been red-faced. He showed up 76 minutes before tip-off; team rules require players to be 90 minutes early. It seems nitpicky, and it certainly didn't appear to matter when the Bulls were zipping to a 49-30 third-quarter lead. But it was disrespectful to coach Scott Skiles and the organization, especially given that Wallace is a "leader" with a $60 million contract. And it speaks to the lack of discipline
that undid the Bulls.
By discipline, I'm not talking about behavioral problems. I'm talking about lack of focus and poise. This wasn't a case of the Bulls simply being overwhelmed by the Pistons, as happened in Games 1 and 2. This truly was a choke job of Cubbian proportions.
When the Pistons started coming back, you could sense the Bulls getting tight. When the game got close, you could feel the panic. When the Pistons went ahead, well, enjoy those rally towels and drive home safely, everybody.
"When they got it (close), we started shot-faking again and had some fumbles and lost some handles," Skiles said. "We got tentative. We couldn't find our rhythm.
"What has become a trend, when (the Pistons) want to do something, they do it. When they want to penetrate, they penetrate. When they want to shoot 3s, they shoot 3s. We haven't had a lot of answers.
"Once it got tight, they turned it up and we weren't able to go with them."
Luol Deng, the closest the Bulls have to an All-Star, went 4-for-13 from the floor and 2-for-5 from the line in the second half. Meanwhile, whether he was trying to defend Tayshaun Prince or Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons found that player, fed that player and were rewarded when that player burned Deng time and again.
I don't mean to pick on Luol, a good kid who won the NBA's Sportsmanship Award. I'm just recounting what happened to one of the Bulls' top guns. What chance did the Bulls really have in this series?
"We knew they were gonna make a run; we just didn't answer," Deng said. "We played better today, but we're saying that it's still a loss. It's hard losing a game like that. It really hurts."
There was plenty of hurt to go around. Ben Gordon, who fancies himself a big-game performer, came up empty for a third consecutive playoff game and got to watch a true big-game performer - Chauncey Billups - carve the Bulls to bits.
Kirk Hinrich was a second-team NBA All-Defense selection, but he was thrashed soundly by Rip Hamilton. And Rasheed Wallace took good buddy Ben Wallace behind the woodshed.
Big Ben supposedly was late because he got caught in particularly bad traffic. Well, after a round of golf and a work meeting in the afternoon, I was driving in from the distant suburbs, too. I managed to make it to the United Center in plenty of time.
And while I consider my job important - after all, whose picture would you put on your dartboard if I didn't offer my smiling mug to your newspaper? I think it's fair to say Wallace had a little more at stake.
And so the questions remain. Can Skiles be The Coach to lead the Bulls to greatness? Do the Bulls have a championship-caliber nucleus? What must general manager John Paxson do to make his team a legitimate contender? (Didn't I just read in the Los Angeles Times that Kevin Garnett wants out of Minnesota?)
Skiles was asked why he didn't use Chris Duhon, who had been a pretty valuable role player the last three years.
"Coach's decision," Skiles said. "I hadn't been able to stick to our top seven players. We had to find out if we stick to our top seven, are we good enough to beat them?"
Well, at least the Bulls had a definitive answer for one question.
Mike Nadel is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Write him c/o the Journal Star, I News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org