While many pundits around the league predicted that the Bulls would earn their way into the second round by defeating the Wizards, the Bulls' players and coaches cautioned anyone who would listen how difficult a series this would be. They were right -- but even the Bulls are admittedly surprised with how tough the Wizards have been over the course of the first four games of this series.
What had been a joyous locker room after Friday's Game 3 win turned quiet and sad Sunday afternoon after the Wizards punched the Bulls in the mouth at the start and never let up. Kirk Hinrich and his teammates knew the Wizards started fast in games, but after Washington jumped out to a 14-0 run and the Bulls couldn't answer, the veteran guard admits that the early pushes by the young Wizards team have been the "theme of the series."
"We thought the mistakes we're making, we could correct them," Hinrich said. "But at this point we haven't. I think they've been a real good first-quarter team all year, so we knew that coming into the series and we just haven't done a good job of handling it."
The Bulls haven't done a good job handling pressure in this series. They haven't played with their trademark intensity, execution or care for the ball that has defined them. They have looked a step slow throughout much of this series to a young, hungry Wizards team that has refused to be broken.
Tom Thibodeau has been stubborn regarding his already short rotation throughout much of this series, but the bigger problem for the Bulls runs much deeper than a short bench and fatigue.
The reality for Thibodeau's team is that, through the first four games of this series, the Wizards are just a better team.
If fans were still holding out hope that the Bulls would find a way to bounce back, Sunday's game should serve as a cold reminder that the Wizards have too much talent for the Bulls' heart-and-hustle team to overcome. With the Wizards playing without Nene, who was suspended for head-butting Jimmy Butler, Sunday's Game 4 was supposed to serve as the Bulls' springboard back into this series. Instead, if the Bulls can't find a way to win the next three games, this will mark the point in time that they sunk.
Without Nene on the floor, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer should have feasted on the additional space offered. Instead, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Booker hounded the Bulls' big men and didn't allow them to do much of anything offensively. Noah and Boozer managed just 18 points while D.J. Augustin and Hinrich shot just 6-for-22 from the field.
"They're trying to deny wings, pressure, deny elbow catches," Hinrich said. "You've got to give them credit; they're doing a good job. We have to do much better as well."
But given the way this series has unfolded, the Bulls don't appear to have another gear. Thibodeau's players look mentally and physically fatigued after the grind of a long season. The most telling part of the scene in the postgame locker room was the fact that the players weren't sure whether their issues were more on the offensive or defensive side of the ball.
For a team that has always been able to dig deep within and find another gear, the lack of a tangible answer has to be most frightening thing for Thibodeau and his coaching staff. Playing hard would be a start -- but it's not the end-all elixir for this team that it has been in the regular season.
The Bulls just don't have the talent that the Wizards do.
"I think our issues are that we're down 1-3," Noah said. "I think that you just got to move on -- execute better offensively and defensively and try to find a way to win a ballgame."
The problem for the Bulls is that winning one game won't make much of a difference now. They have to win three in a row. With the way they've played over the last couple weeks, that's a tall task even for a Bulls squad that lives for big challenges.