By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) If it’s mid-April, it must be playoff talk time.
For the entirety of this decade, that has meant Chicago Blackhawks hockey and, except for last season (thankfully), Chicago Bulls basketball. This is the routine in this town.
But are you excited either way? It can come off as awfully conceited to be in a situation as a fan in which the team you root for makes the postseason and you’re actively unappreciative of it. For fans of teams on the outside looking in, it would be totally understandable to look at Chicago — after a Cubs World Series win, no less — and call our fans any number of names for our Veruca Saltiness.
But that dismisses what it means to root for the Hawks and Bulls right now. Regarding the former, I’ve thought on and off all season about being conscious of jaded feelings taking over — the yawning over a Hawks team with three Stanley Cups in the last seven years and their status of just presumably being there. I keep vigorously shaking my head to get that terrible resignation out.
On the flip side are the Bulls, a team I actively rooted against making the playoffs for the second unfair year in a row. This team could be — should be — exciting, and it isn’t. Yes, the Bulls have a penchant for playing to competition, which means sweeping the season series against the Cleveland Cavaliers and beating the Toronto Raptors in 11 of their last 12 meetings. And still the Bulls are the most disappointing team not yet golfing.
Much of that doesn’t even have to do with their play, because the roster is fairly trash besides Jimmy Butler, whiffs of vintage Dwyane Wade and the illusion of occasional Paul Zipser blitzkriegs meaning something greater. Two of those names stand a good chance of not being on the team next season anyway, yet there’s no feeling of swan song. The Wade homecoming was a flop, and nobody knows if trading Butler is a good move or not. It’s hard to with a front office that has shown little ability to formulate any sensible plan for the future beyond contentment with being playoff-worthy enough to sell tickets and merchandise and then shrugging shoulders.
Not helping matters is the feeling that the Blackhawks have been off for two weeks since they sewed up their top seed a while ago, killed the headlights and put it in neutral in the last few regular-season games and then couldn’t host a first-round game until Thursday because of the Bulls still playing Wednesday. It won’t help the Napoleon complex of Hawks fans that the team can so easily fade from awareness like that when Cubs things are happening and fingernails are dug into couches as the Bulls inexplicably fall upward. Hockey is a bit different than basketball when it comes to playoff seeding, and a 1-versus-8 matchup in the NHL isn’t as certain of a result as it is in the NBA. But the Hawks draw the Nashville Predators, meaning the most interesting aspect of the series is yelling about fascist ticket practices at Bridgestone Arena.
The Bulls’ playoff existence is a product of being the least of the Eastern Conference suck. To merely get the eighth seed in a league in which more than half the teams make the postseason, the Bulls had to wax a Brooklyn Nets team on Wednesday that rested players entering the final game of the season with a league-worst 20-61 record. I’ll always defend playoff-bound teams resting stars, fan feelings and stories of them driving five hours for their only chance to see LeBron James be damned, but what the Nets pulled was insulting, as was the explanation for it.
So the Bulls finished the regular season at a mediocre .500 clip — a game worse than 2015-’16 season, when they missed the playoffs — and are rewarded with the Boston Celtics, who should only lose a game in this series as part of some energy-moderation strategy.
“Looks can be very deceiving,’’ Bulls star Jimmy Butler said Wednesday. “We’re not worried about who we’re playing. We’ve got to focus on ourselves, play the best Bulls basketball that we can.
“We’re in there. It’s all about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time.”
That would be easier to buy if Butler wasn’t on a team that lost all three of its games to the New York Knicks this season and by an average of over 12 points. I conducted a very super scientific poll in the august chambers of Twitter, asking Bulls fans their feelings on a Bulls playoff appearance this season. Options were positive, negative and indifferent. For almost the entirety of the voting process, the “Woo! Go get ‘em” option never climbed into double-digit percentage, while anger hovered around a quarter of respondents, and indifference far leading the pack.
(Only the one and only…)
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks continue to be a beautiful machine of death created by general manager Stan Bowman, maybe the most underappreciated figure in major sports. As we entered yet another season wondering how a team that was another year older and perpetually more expensive could maintain, the Hawks enter Game 1 on Thursday night as a menacing shadow for the rest of the playoff teams that don’t want to acknowledge that the road to the Stanley Cup goes through Chicago again. There’s nothing loud about the Hawks — they’re just there. Again. And they will probably kill you.
That’s a beauty that we’ve grown used to to the point of unfortunate complacency, because the Hawks are obviously a team with a recent history of barrenness that drove so many fans, myself included, away for a while. There’s no seven-year itch, and the appreciation will ramp up a bit as each opponent is conquered. For the time being, though, this hockey feels more business than pleasure. It’s not to be overlooked that many fans approach this decade’s team conflicted due to annual non-hockey issues with players that test a decent person’s humanity.
All that is a hell of a lot different than realizing that getting to the playoffs is a feather in the cap of a front office that’s probably standing in the way of any long-term progress. But that’s the Bulls, a living, breathing sports catch-22.
We’re talking playoffs in Chicago, sure. It’s just muffled by drinking down the glass to half empty when being in the postseason should be of more raucous stuff. This April is a particularly, strangely cruel month.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.