By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The question didn’t throw off media-savvy veteran Bulls guard Dwyane Wade a bit, he of 11 previous playoff runs with a 12th now on the way.
Would you consider this season a “success” now that the Bulls have returned to the playoffs a year after missing them?
“I’m not going to use that word,” Wade said after Chicago cruised to a 112-73 win against Brooklyn on Wednesday night at the United Center to set up a first-round series with top -seeded Boston. “I’m just going to say I’m proud of these guys through everything — wins, losses, injuries, trades. All the things we went through as a team, to continue to stick together and find a way? That’s what it’s about. It’s about finding a way, and we was able to accomplish that in our first year together.”
When Wade signed with Chicago last July, he was asked what sort of expectations he had for the 2016-’17 Bulls. He knew better than to set a specific standard, emphasizing there was much to learn for all parties involved.
He was certainly right about that. The Bulls’ regular season was nothing if not wild.
Wade and star Jimmy Butler torching their teammates and the ensuing Instagram rebuke from veteran point guard Rajon Rondo was the most infamous storyline, but there was plenty of unpredictability along the way. It took coach Fred Hoiberg nearly 82 games just to settle on a playing rotation. Multiple players cited confusion over their roles, and there were nights you might as well have thrown a dart to pick a starting point guard.
Rondo was benched for five full games starting on New Year’s Eve, then spearheaded the pivotal late-season surge. Nikola Mirotic went from reduced role to trade bait to inactive to the March star who said he wanted to shoot the Bulls into the playoffs. Veteran stalwart Taj Gibson — as respected as anyone in an NBA locker room — was shipped off on trade deadline day. Rumors swirled externally about the job security of the front office and Hoiberg.
For goodness sake, there were even two separate controversies over newly acquired fringe rotation players choosing to wear former Bulls point guard Derrick Rose’s No. 1 jersey, only to reverse course after social media blowback.
It’s why “proud” was a theme for the Bulls after they reached the playoffs as the eighth seed on the regular season’s final night, their 2-1 season series advantage over the Heat serving as the tiebreaker after both finished 41-41.
“A great job of being resilient by our players, of hanging in there and sticking in there and finding a way to battle all the way to the last day,” Hoiberg said.
“I’m happy for our guys, for them to have the opportunity to continue on and play. Again, it’s up to all of us.”
The Bulls have cited several turning points in their path that was headed toward complete irrelevance about a month ago. Perhaps the most significant was the reinsertion of Rondo as the starting point guard after an embarrassing loss at Boston on March 12. The Bulls responded by finishing 10-6, with Rondo’s effect pronounced on reinvigorating others, notably Mirotic, and Butler continuing to play like a star.
It was Butler who when asked throughout the struggles would sometimes respond that many outsiders didn’t expect the Bulls to make the playoffs anyway. He continued that line of thinking with Game 1 of the series against the Celtics awaiting Sunday evening in Boston.
“We can’t worry about what the outside people think, and if they count us in or not,” said Butler, who led Chicago with 25 points Wednesday. “We need to focus on ourselves as an organization and a team.”
The Bulls and Celtics split their four regular-season meetings, with each team winning twice at home.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” Wade said. “It says 1-8, but I think it’s going to be a little tougher than that.”
Wade followed by calling this the “fun part of the year.” It’s why he came to Chicago, after all.
“When training camp started, we talked about making the postseason,” Wade said. “Not just getting in but when we get in, understanding the game the way we can, when we’re playing the right way, we can beat anybody. We can make noise — taking that confidence into the series. We had to get through the 82. We got the 82.
“It’s what I play for now, is the playoffs. Eighty-two is a long, grind-out season. I play for this time of the year.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.