MIAMI -- The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of learning a hard lesson that has been seven months in the making. When it comes to winning basketball games against elite teams late in the season, heart and hustle can only take you so far.
There's a certain point when that's just not enough, and the Bulls reached that point during Sunday's 105-93 loss to the Miami Heat.
Throughout much of this season, the Bulls found ways to win games they weren't supposed to, play through injuries to key contributors and fight through the mental and physical grind of an 82-game season. The fact that they did all of this without star guard Derrick Rose and managed to play at a high level with the constant distraction of Rose's status is commendable and shows again why Tom Thibodeau is such a good coach.
But at some point, no matter how hard a team tries, talent almost always wins out. That's what happened Sunday against Miami as the Bulls played without Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis), Taj Gibson (knee), Rip Hamilton (suspension) and of course, Rose. They didn't have enough to slow down LeBron James and company down the stretch and make plays.
Thibodeau preaches about never having excuses, but let's face it, the Bulls don't have enough healthy talent to beat teams like Miami right now. The veteran coach doesn't want to hear it, but his players know it to be true.
"The thing is it was a winnable game for us," Thibodeau said. "You're going to get into situation when you're on the road ... they're a great team, give them credit. I think that they got a lot of calls that went their way but that was to be expected. There's still a winnable game down the stretch. We had a couple tough plays where we had poor body positioning but even in the fourth quarter we're right there. We got to come up with a way to get stops."
But that's the problem for the Bulls and has been off and on throughout the season. The offense has struggled for consistency, and because of all the injuries, they sometimes have to play small and try to knock down shots from the perimeter. When those shots aren't falling, it makes them even more vulnerable on both ends of the floor. With Noah and Gibson not on the floor, the problems became even harder to cover up.
"We're small," Thibodeau admitted. "When you take 26 3s it means (in this case) those were probably the right shots. We're playing small, we've got four perimeter players out there with Carlos (Boozer). Those are the shots that present themselves. I think what happens when you do that is your offense picks up but your defense suffers. The value of both Taj and Joakim are the fact that you can stay big when teams go small, because of their feet. But that being said we've got other guys that can get it done. We just didn't get it done."
The problem for Thibodeau is that it's just not the case.
Nazr Mohammed didn't score and committed three fouls in less than seven minutes of play. Boozer racked up 16 points and 20 rebounds but missed nine shots, played poor defense and repeatedly did not go up strong at the rim. The good news for the Bulls is that both Noah and Gibson are hoping to be ready for the playoffs, if not sooner. The bad news is that they likely won't be able to get into any kind of rhythm before the big games start next weekend. The Bulls would love to get up to the fifth seed and jump Atlanta before the end of the regular season, but all of it is moot if they can't get relatively healthy before next weekend.
"Just (playing with) more energy," Bulls guard Nate Robinson said of what his team needed to fix up before the playoffs. "More energy. Everything else will take care of itself."
That's just not the case. If the Bulls don't get healthy, they won't win.
Thibodeau's team has been playing hard of late, a fact lost on no one within the locker room. They're just out of gas. They don't have enough depth to overcome so many injuries and the guys who have been playing have played so many minutes that their bodies are starting to wear out. The only true importance for the last two games of the season is to keep everybody upright and get Noah and Gibson back. The Bulls have the ability, with that group, to beat either the Brooklyn Nets or the Indiana Pacers in the first round. The Heat, as they proved two years ago in the Eastern Conference finals and again on Sunday, are just on another level right now.
"Just come out with two solid efforts on both ends of the floor," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said of his wish for the last two games. "We've kind of been inconsistent in both areas here as of late. (We) just have to gear up because once the season ends the playoffs are here. It's not like we get another training camp. So we just have to play two very solid effort games on both ends of the floor; unselfish on offense, moving the ball, just being very sharp."