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Westerlund: Lacking Crunch-Time Closer, Bulls Hit By Reality

Joakim Noah, left, grabs a rebound. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Joakim Noah, left, grabs a rebound. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Cody Westerlund headshot very small Cody Westerlund
A sports editor for CBSChicago.com and 670TheScore.com, ...
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By Cody Westerlund-

CHICAGO (CBS) – As the season’s most significant possessions unraveled for the Bulls on Tuesday in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Wizards, never had it been so sobering to stare into the eyes of this truth.

For everything you adored about these Bulls, they’re just not built for the playoffs.

This much was made clear again Tuesday at the United Center, where for the second time in three days the Bulls went cold offensively down the stretch and blew a late lead. In a 101-99 overtime loss to the Wizards, this time is was a scoreless drought of 7 minutes, 38 seconds spanning the end of regulation and nearly four minutes of the extra session that left the Bulls down 2-0 in their Eastern Conference first-round series and seemingly out of answers.

“Tough loss, frustrated, just looking back on plays thinking about things we could’ve done better,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said. “Really frustrated.”

With a plot bound in heart and hustle, the regular-season story of the Bulls was adorable. Few foes consistently brought the intensity Chicago played with night in and night out, and none executed their defense as well and relentlessly. Many viewed the Bulls on a macro-level, wondering with astonishment how they’d persevered to a 48-34 record largely without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.

Now here comes late April, and we’re forced to dissect every last play, because that’s what happens in the playoffs. Games go down to the wire and tomorrow draws nearer, until there is no tomorrow.

And here’s why the Bulls are on course to only have a few tomorrows left: When the going gets tough, successful playoff teams have a go-to guy who can make tough buckets look easy, like Bradley Beal (26 points) did late for the Wizards.

The Bulls had no one to respond, their most important offensive sequences Tuesday resulting in a missed 22-footer from Kirk Hinrich, a missed 11-foot runner in traffic from D.J. Augustin and a pair of free throws by Hinrich after he was generously granted a foul with 2.4 seconds left. Hinrich then missed the first free throw before intentionally missing the second as the Bulls needed a rebound and putback to tie in the waning seconds.

“What was going through my mind was that I was going to knock them down,” Hinrich said of the missed free throws. “Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that.

“The sun’s going to come up tomorrow.”

It would be easy to blame Hinrich, but that’d be missing the point. The ball should never be in his hands so often in crunch time, but given the roster construction it’s nearly inevitable. Noah couldn’t be asked to go one-on-one in the waning seconds, Taj Gibson does his best work on the glass, Jimmy Butler wasn’t a threat offensively and Augustin couldn’t find space late.

And that’s the sad part – the only hope is that those doing too much can knock down a few more shots.

“We have to be balanced,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whose team had four players in double figures.

“That’s the way we have to do it – we have to have seven guys. The one thing we can never lose sight of is when you’re undermanned, you got to play hard all the time, all the time. You can never let your guard down. That’s what we’ve done all season. That’s what we’re going to have to do now.”

There were no complaints the Bulls could log when this one was done. Yes, the officiating was uneven for long stretches, but Chicago received many favorable whistles. Washington gifted away points with a 16-of-28 showing at the free-throw line. And although the Bulls’ offensive drought was horrific, a team that prides itself on defense was one stop away in the final minutes from winning in regulation.

For Chicago’s part, this much can be said: The locker room was disheartened and quiet, but there was no fear in the players’ voices. Minutes before John Wall took to the podium to say his Wizards are still the “underdogs,” the Bulls reiterated that they can still win, despite only three teams in NBA history having rallied for a series win after dropping the first two at home.

The Bulls’ stubbornness won’t let them believe anything else.

“We have to find a way,” Noah said. “It’s been a rocky year. It hasn’t been pretty at times … We’re disappointed, but we’re not going to stop fighting.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.