DEERFIELD, Ill. -- As Rip Hamilton struggled to free himself from the horde surrounding him in the corner of the Berto Center Monday afternoon, a reporter asked him if he ever thought it would come down to this. Did the 34-year-old who signed with the Chicago Bulls to win a championship ever think that he would be heading into Game 5 of the first round on the verge of elimination?
"I didn't think a whole lot of stuff would happen," the veteran guard said as he strided away.
In one fell swoop, Hamilton may have encapsulated his season, and that of the Bulls, better than anyone.
Hamilton thought he had been brought to Chicago to serve as the missing piece to a championship puzzle. Alongside Derrick Rose, he was supposed help push the Bulls to their seventh championship. Now, as the Bulls get set for Game 5 Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, Hamilton found himself answering questions about wanting to be on the floor late. He only played 27 seconds in the fourth quarter in Game 4, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau stuck with Kyle Korver down the stretch.
"Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do," Hamilton responded in part, deftly pushing the question aside.
In truth, it's killing the veteran that he isn't on the floor late. In the span of just nine days, he's gone from a guy who scored 19 points in Game 1 alongside Rose to a guy who is just 11-for-34 from the field and is now playing without Rose (torn ACL) and Joakim Noah (sprained ankle). It's been a whirlwind of bad luck for the Bulls and Hamilton admits that he would like to be out there to help more if given the chance on Tuesday.
"You do [want to be out there]," Hamilton said. "But it is what it is. Like I said before when I came here, whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do. My job is -- if I'm not on the court in the fourth quarter -- is to cheer for the next guy because I know the next guy would do the same thing for me. It's just one of them things where you got to stay in tune with the game."
For Hamilton, that means figuring out a way to be successful despite the fact that Sixers head coach Doug Collins has switched up the Philadelphia defense on him since Game 1.
"Playoffs is about adjustments," Hamilton said. "So what they try to do is every time I come off a pick and roll, they double. Every time I come off a pin down, they double. When I try to post up they try to bring another guy and double. But it's one of them things that now, for me is like, 'All right, now you got to make plays for your teammates.' And when guys get the ball they got to step up. And that's what the game is about, trusting your teammates."
The question now is: Does Thibodeau have trust in Hamilton? Will he decide to play him down the stretch or stick with Korver in the final few minutes? As usual, Thibodeau wasn't tipping his hand. He did praise the way Hamilton has been playing but that doesn't mean he will decide to stick the veteran back in with the game on the line.
"We'll see how it's going," Thibodeau said. "Depending on how the groups are playing. But if he's playing well ... "
"Kyle's closed a lot of games," Thibodeau continued. "Lu's closed a lot of games. C.J, I thought C.J. played very, very well in the second half. Carlos, we've got a number of guys that can make shots."
Whether Bulls fans still believe that is in doubt. What's not is that Hamilton believes his team still has a chance if they stick together. The message he had for his teammates was based around sticking together through the tough times, believing they can still do what they need to do.
"Right now it's win or die," he said. "It's win or go home. It makes the game more challenging, it makes it better, I think, because you're not looking to another game. This has to be the game or if you don't [win], you're going home. It's a situation that we've got to come out and be prepared to play for 48 minutes."
Hamilton is just hoping he can be a factor in those final 12.