There were moments in the second quarter of the Bulls' season opener at the United Center when I thought this might be the worst team in the history of the franchise. Considering where the Bulls have already gone since Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson went their separate ways in 1998, that's saying something.
The nadir was probably the 15-67 team in 2000-'01, but even they had Elton Brand, Brad Miller, Ron Artest, and Ron Mercer. As the Bulls fell behind New Jersey 25-13 two weeks ago, trailed by 10 at the quarter, and then allowed the Nets to score the next 16 points, they looked far worse than that squad ever had. To be sure, they were missing big men Eddy Curry and Antonio Davis--both serving season-opening two-game suspensions for a fight they got into during an exhibition game (a fight Curry entered late with a cheap shot)--but the Nets didn't have their star point guard, the injured Jason Kidd. Boos rained down from the announced crowd of 20,117, and all the Bulls could offer to atone was the Matadors, the cheerleading crew of shameless fat guys. They didn't so much distract fans from the Bulls' performance as remind them of the matador defense the Bulls were playing, waving the Nets on through to the hoop. Playing soft against Alonzo Mourning, making a comeback after a kidney transplant, the Bulls' Tyson Chandler allowed the 34-year-old center to hit a couple of open jump shots and was yanked by coach Scott Skiles, who was in the process of establishing a touch of the fingertips to the brow as his signature gesture of aggravation. The Bulls trailed 55-35 at the half, and many of the fans got up not to return. I considered the possibility. For this, I thought, I'm missing Le Tigre?
The Bulls' management has no illusions about this team, as general manager John Paxson tries to undo the damage done by Jerry Krause, who insisted it was organizations, not players, that won titles and went about proving the opposite. The new slogan, "Through thick and thin," reflects the be-true-to-your-school mentality required to sustain ticket sales, but given the direction dictated by the electorate on November 2 the Bulls might have done better with the more biblical "Our seven lean years are almost up." Even that seemed undeservedly optimistic early on that Friday night.
Yet in keeping with last year's motto, "Everything can change in the blink of an eye"--subtly if irritatingly echoed by Hilary Duff's "Fly" in the pregame music blasted over the PA system--the Bulls suddenly began to show promise. Paxson had traded away last year's top scorer, Jamal Crawford, for almost nothing to make it clear to all that Kirk Hinrich was in charge of the team--addition by subtraction--and the point guard, named captain in only his second season, went about proving himself worthy of the confidence. Hinrich didn't work just on his game over the summer--he built up his body and even altered his hairstyle, going from nerdy farm boy with bangs plastered to his forehead to a flipped-up Hair Cuttery poster boy. If the change has him looking like Kyle Macy, in all other respects he made one forget that old clod of a point guard. Hinrich got back on a fast break to swat the ball away from Mercer--pleasing fans who remembered what a slug Mercer had been with the Bulls--and kept the Bulls within ten at the end of the first quarter with a buzzer-beating drive into the lane, faking Jacque Vaughn into the air and calmly hitting the shot. In the third quarter he threw the Bulls over his shoulders and lugged them back into the game, helped by teenage rookie Luol Deng.
Deng, a long-limbed leaper of a small forward out of Duke, was widely considered the best choice the Bulls could make with their third overall pick in the NBA draft last summer, but they passed on him to take "the best player available," Connecticut's Ben Gordon, even though they were well stocked at guard. To his credit, Paxson had apparently prepared in advance to pull off a steal that may rival Krause's theft of Pippen in 1987. He swapped the Bulls' first-round pick next summer to the Phoenix Suns for Deng, taken with the seventh choice. (And if the Bulls really tank and get one of the top three picks next summer, they'll keep it.) Gordon struggled with his shooting touch during the preseason and looked no better in his formal debut, but Deng made an immediate impression. In the darkest moments of the second quarter, he teamed up a couple of times with Hinrich to provide rays of hope, first scrambling for a loose ball and passing out to Hinrich for an open three-pointer, then converting a Hinrich lost ball under the hoop into a basket. Inserted in the third quarter as part of a smaller, more mobile lineup, he got things started with a lovely little turnaround jumper down low, and after Hinrich hit a runner in the lane and a pull-up jumper on a fast break, Deng hit a longer turnaround--spinning, stopping, leaping, and rotating--to get the Bulls inside 20 at 65-46. He saved a long inbounds pass by heaving it back to fellow Duke rookie Chris Duhon, who hit a three-pointer, and when Hinrich banked in a three to make it 67-52, the crowd was caught up in the rally and chanting "Dee-fense!" Snuffed on a drive, Hinrich batted the ball back up and in like a volleyball setter to get the Bulls inside ten, and then Deng rose up and hit a long jumper--his arms held high, faintly reminiscent of Bob "Butterbean" Love. Hinrich ended the quarter with a three trailing a fast break, giving him a Jordan-esque 17 points in the frame and making it 73-66.
The bittersweet thing about this game was that the Bulls came all the way back to take the lead and had the game won, only to let it slip away. For a while it seemed as if they'd never quite get there. Hinrich could have gotten them within a basket but missed a free throw, and when Duhon followed with a three the Nets still led, 73-72. Deng tipped in a rebound to keep the Bulls within one. With just under nine minutes to play, Skiles abandoned the small lineup to bring back Chandler and rookie Andres Nocioni, a scruffy but avid forward and another Paxson coup--a free agent fresh from winning a gold medal with the Argentine team in the Summer Olympics. But it was Deng whose three tied the game at 77, and who converted the rebound on a Duhon miss to put the Bulls in front 79-77. When he tipped in a Nocioni miss, he evened the game again at 81. But Deng, still a teenager, lacks stamina. The tip would give him his last points of the game as he finished with 18.
Skiles spread the floor, putting Deng, Duhon, and Hinrich all behind the three-point arc, and when Nocioni popped out to hit a three the Bulls led 84-82. Hinrich followed with another three and it was 87-84. Power forward Othella Harrington (one of the few returns in the Crawford trade, along with the injured former Illinois point guard Frank Williams) came off the bench to hit a couple of jump shots for a 92-90 Bulls lead, and Hinrich had a chance to go to the line and put the game away with with 14 seconds left. But he made only one of two foul shots. New Jersey center Jason Collins drove and dunked to get the Nets back within one, and after Nocioni split two free throws with ten seconds left, Richard Jefferson's jump shot tied the game at 94. Hinrich's attempt at the buzzer to hit a game-winning runner from 25 feet was dead-on but just short--overtime.
The Bulls were gassed. They didn't score a field goal in the first overtime. Still, Hinrich's two free throws put the Bulls up 97-96 with just over three minutes to go, and another pair by Nocioni at 1:40 tied the game at 99, which is where it stood at the buzzer, thanks to a couple of missed free throws by Mourning. He made up for them in the second overtime, however, hitting a couple of key shots down low in the last minute and a half as the Bulls expired, 111-106.
Skiles was dour after the game and pointed to the free throws. "You can't win going 16 of 27 from the line," he said. "In a game that close, it's not good enough." Hinrich was no cheerier. "It hurts, you know," he said. "A couple missed free throws hurt us. We had 'em. It just stinks when you think you shoulda won a game and you don't."
For seven years now, the experts have been saying the Bulls needed to learn how to win in the NBA--something that once seemed second nature to them--but that's turned out to be a difficult thing to teach. Pippen's retirement just before training camp offered a reminder of how the championship Bulls never beat themselves. They always rushed a shot up with 30 seconds left in a quarter to get the two-for-one, they knew when they had a foul to give in the waning seconds, and Pippen was forever reliable on the inbounds pass. (For all his athletic ability, he was, quite simply, the smartest player in terms of court sense that I've ever seen.) The current Bulls showed little sign of that acumen.
Their basketball IQ didn't improve any with the return of Curry. Though he was in fighting trim after a summer conditioning program, otherwise he looked awful in his season debut November 9, scoring just three points in 17 minutes. The Bulls fell behind Phoenix 21-9 in the first quarter and were never in it, losing 94-74. Soon afterward, Curry's handlers--agents and family--were quoted as saying that maybe the south-suburban Thornwood product needed a change of scenery to develop. The result was a media firestorm.
Curry retreated publicly, and he looked reinspired at the start of Saturday's game at the United Center against the Los Angeles Clippers, scoring 11 points in the first quarter--including two three-point plays--as the Bulls claimed a 34-21 lead. The Clippers were playing their second game in two nights after a loss to the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, and Skiles seemed to be trying to run them off the court. He sent fresh reserves Gordon, Deng, and Duhon in early, and the Bulls' bench opened a 49-25 lead in the second quarter. But when the Clippers with an air of desperation finally picked up the pace, the Bulls discovered how difficult it was to slow the game and run an offense they had such an uncertain grasp of to begin with. Curry lost his rhythm and never really got it back, though he'd finish with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
The Clippers closed to 54-48 at the half and tied the game at 76 to end the third quarter. An 11-1 spurt opened the fourth quarter, which was almost half over before Gordon scored the Bulls' first field goal of the frame. If the Bulls were finding it difficult to learn how to win, they were discovering increasingly ornate ways to lose. Again they rallied, and Deng could have pulled them within a three-pointer in the final minute by converting a pair of free throws, but he missed the second to leave the score at 92-88. The miss turned out to be critical. The Bulls did get to within three but had to foul Rick Brunson with 1.8 seconds left. Brunson missed the first free throw but made the second, and the runner Hinrich hit from just inside the half-court line at the buzzer was academic. The 97-96 final left the Bulls 0-4 as they made room for the circus at the United Center by embarking on their annual west-coast trip. As the Bulls hadn't won a game on this trip since the Jordan era, it was entirely possible they'd return home in December at 0-11.
Even so, the Bulls have established themselves, to my way of thinking, as talented enough and promising enough and fascinating enough--for all their flaws--to be worth watching. For better or worse, I knew I was hooked the second night of their season, when they traveled to Indiana to play the Pacers. The Bulls were outscored in each of the first three quarters, and even though Deng had 25, Gordon awoke with a scolding from Skiles to score 17, and the Bulls rallied in the final quarter, they could get no closer than 100-90, as a weary Hinrich fouled out with 12 points after playing 55 minutes the night before. Instead of watching the game on TV, I was at an impromptu gathering of Democrats licking their wounds. To the surprise of no one more than myself I found myself thinking, for this I'm missing the Bulls?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ron Hoskins--NBAE via Getty Images.