By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — On several occasions during a late-season surge and early in these playoffs, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg praised his team’s response to adversity in a trying campaign. Through the struggles, the rotation roulette, the in-house criticism and youngsters’ growing pains, the Bulls had found a sliver of solace in displaying some fight, even if it was just to get to .500 amid an uninspiring Eastern Conference.
The Bulls won’t take that same feeling into the offseason.
For the third time in four years, a Bulls trip to the playoffs ended with an embarrassing dud at the United Center. This year brought a humbling end for Chicago in the form of a 105-83 loss to the top-seeded Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the first round on Friday. Much like in a 69-point effort in a loss to the Wizards to end the 2014 season and a 21-point loss to the Cavaliers to end the Tom Thibodeau era in 2015, the Bulls were lifeless, with the Celtics shooting 58 percent in the first quarter and leading by as many as 30 in the third quarter.
“I understand the frustration,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
In the final minutes, some in the sparse United Center crowd that wasn’t close to full to begin the game could be heard chanting “Fire Hoiberg.” Asked about that, Hoiberg didn’t respond directly. Asked about the crowd’s booing in general, Dwyane Wade — who tied a playoff career-low with two points on 1-of-10 shooting — responded, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Those were a couple of the many examples of resignation for these Bulls, who by the early stages of the third quarter were going through the motions — hoisting long jumpers on offense, getting beat off the dribble on defense with no help rotating.
“It’s tough,” said Nikola Mirotic, a much-needed scorer who had just five points. “It’s not something we wanted. But it’s true that we had to put more effort playing at home, you know. It should never happen. It should never end that way, but it it what it is. We cannot get that back.”
Bulls management may in the coming days and weeks cite Rajon Rondo’s fractured thumb in Game 2 as the turning point of this series — which it was — but Friday reminded of more significant truths for this team.
The stagnant offense that surfaced in Rondo’s absence reflected the lack of depth and playmakers outside of star Jimmy Butler. The lack of continuity was a symptom of Hoiberg’s inability to settle on a rotation this season.
Wade failing to be a difference-maker in this series was a reminder that he’s a 14-year veteran who’s lost burst at 35. His bumps and bruises take a toll more than ever.
And more than anything, there was only so much that Butler could give. Playing through a sore knee that slowed him, Butler led the Bulls with a 23-point, seven-rebound, three-steal effort. So many times, he’d been transcendent this season in carrying the Bulls to the playoffs, in helping lift them to a 2-0 series lead over the Celtics.
The burden Butler must carry was catching up to him, though he’ll never admit it.
“People don’t realize how banged up Jimmy was,” Hoiberg said.
It was Butler who after being benched to start a game for criticizing teammates in January said that nothing surprises him in this organization. And the ending — four straight losses to a top seed after two head-turning road wins to open the series — seemed par for the course as well.
These Bulls went exactly .500 in a regular season with a team that was constructed around a key last-minute decision last July. They could play with the best and lose with the worst. When they’re remembered, it’ll be for off-court internal drama more than the on-court product.
“It was a weird season,” Wade said.
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.