Scrappy Bulls season a step back

CHICAGO -- There were moments Monday night when Game 4 of the Chicago Bulls' second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat felt like just another regular-season game only, well, worse.

Waiting for the rally that never came; for the appearance of a Bulls' star (in this case Luol Deng) that simply wasn't to be; for something, anything, to tell us in which direction this team was headed.

What it felt was ultimately unsatisfying, not unlike this Bulls season.

While their 2012-13 campaign will deservedly go down as one of overachievement, of another masterful coaching job by Tom Thibodeau, of an inspirational display of effort, it will also leave fans with the most bitter of sports' aftertastes: the dreaded "What if?"

Worse than that, after a steady climb under Thibodeau, it feels like a step back. As much as Derrick Rose has claimed he will return next season stronger than ever, there will still be an indoctrination phase, a feeling-out process for both Rose and his teammates. Another adjustment period.

And strangest of all, Rose will go through it while having to win back a sizable portion of the team's fan base, whose frustration and even animosity would have been unthinkable a little more than a year ago.

Was this season completely lost?

Not entirely. It allowed Jimmy Butler invaluable playing time he never would have had in his second season to emerge as a bona fide shooting guard and potentially one of the top defenders in the league.

It forced Carlos Boozer to finally play defense and even to carry the team at times, a side to him we had not seen before with any consistency.

Gar Forman, John Paxson and Thibodeau proved that indeed, they can put together a formidable bench from year to year.

The Bulls also did something perhaps most impressive of all: They simply hung in there. A virtue you just don't often see on the pro level, they performed against every expectation and with every built-in excuse there for the taking.

While showing admirable loyalty to Rose, they still had to be thrown as much by the unknown as the rest of us. And yet, with few exceptions, they remained resolute. Strong-willed coach or not, it necessitated a daily choice, one that one locker room cancer could have wiped out.

Instead, they practically turned this season into a modern-day pro version of "Hoosiers," with seemingly everyone but those in South Florida rooting on the little team that could.

But one incontrovertible truth about sports is that time is more often an enemy than a friend. Players get older, contracts expire, a coach's message gets staler and the proverbial window of opportunity closes, if only a little.

While the Bulls produced admirable results this season, it also took its toll, both on their bodies and very possibly their spirits.

We learned that indeed, it would have been nice to have Omer Asik. But did we really need to see Joakim Noah play through such pain to know that he could? Probably not.

Deng trade talk will heat up again. The Bulls will have to find another 3-point shooter to replace Marco Belinelli or re-sign Belinelli, but both he and Nate Robinson may have improved their respective stock enough to price themselves out of the team's price range. And the Bulls still need a serviceable backup center.

What Monday night showed is that even the most unwavering spirit can't overcome talent in the NBA, especially not when that talent is one of the best in the history of basketball and resides in your conference. The Bulls needed Rose. Desperately. And in the end, despite the sentiments of his brother, it did not take an enormous amount of imagination to envision the Bulls getting past the Heat with Rose on the court.

What Monday also showed is that it is possible for a team to literally play itself to exhaustion, to do what every coach on every level preaches, and that's to leave it all on the court. One look at the Bulls' locker room afterward confirmed that, though it was hardly necessary.

"It's hard to believe," Taj Gibson said of the Bulls' physical condition. "I don't know, we're just kind of putting screws and bandages everywhere. It's frustrating. Every night, every day, we're just trying to push through it."

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to picture them pushing through it any longer. Maybe it's even unfair to expect it.

While getting to the second round of the playoffs should not be considered a moral victory, there definitely is something moral about it.

And while this season may have been ultimately unsatisfying, it was nothing if not satisfactory.