medial meniscus, All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler’s sprained right elbow, Taj Gibson’s sprained left ankle — and an ongoing (and probably necessary, and certainly smart, if frustrating) restriction on center Joakim Noah’s minutes that has left Tom Thibodeau’s club somewhat shorthanded and struggling to stay afloat in the race for a top-four slot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.The Chicago Bulls are, to some degree, just treading water right now. They’re 7-8 since the All-Star break, suffering through a spate of injuries to key contributors — former MVP Derrick Rose’s torn
They’ve been able to do so, getting timely production from unexpected bacon-savers like E’Twaun Moore, the near-metronomic offensive consistency of big man Pau Gasol (18.4 points on 50 percent shooting, 11.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.5 blocks per game since the All-Star break), a huge first half of March from rookie power forward Nikola Mirotic (20.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, getting to the free-throw line nine times per 36 minutes of work, and leading the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring since the end of February) and needed long-range marksmanship from swingmen Mike Dunleavy Jr. (45 percent from 3-point land on four attempts per game since the break) and Tony Snell (43.1 percent from beyond the arc on nearly five tries per contest over the same span).
Thanks to the strong work of Chicago’s supporting cast — and the fact that nobody else in the East’s second tier is playing lights-out basketball right now — the Bulls find themselves in the No. 4 spot, a half-game back of the Toronto Raptors and a half-game up on the Washington Wizards, affording them the opportunity to bide their time a bit and not rush their injured stars back into the fold.
One of those wounded warriors, Gibson, might be ready to return to the floor against the Raptors on Friday night. If he takes a bit longer to get back on the floor, though, it could be due to a sentiment similar to one shared earlier this week by LeBron James — that health matters more than seeding come playoff time. (Nobody knows that better than a Bulls crew that has had to slog its way through three straight postseasons with its top guns on the injured list.)
In sharing his views on the matter, Brooklyn native Gibson also took a bit of a swipe at his home borough’s recently adopted hometown team, according to Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:
With the 3-5 seeds breathing down each other’s necks, Gibson doesn’t see the value in returning just to win a couple extra games and putting the team in position of jeopardizing it’s long-term playoff prospects with diminishing health.
“Right now, you never really know in the East,” Gibson said. “It’s about playing in the East, getting a nice rhythm going, try to get as many wins as possible and whatever the chips fall, they fall. Just gotta know you have the team fully healthy.”
“You saw Brooklyn losing games on purpose to get the right kind of matchup [last year]. We feel like we’re ready to take on anybody in the East, it’s wide open, I think. But the main thing is health.”
Lest we forget, the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets, led by head coach Jason Kidd and boasting a rotation featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko — boy, what a difference a year makes — lost four of their last five games, including a 29-point defeat to the lottery-bound Cleveland Cavaliers on the final day of the regular season, while somewhat liberally resting their vets’ aching bones along the way. As a result, Brooklyn finished with the No. 6 seed in the East and a first-round matchup with the Raptors; the No. 5 seed went to the Wizards, who faced the fourth-seeded Bulls.
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At the time, Kidd and company sloughed off suggestions that they were deliberately going less than 110 percent late in the season in an attempt to avoid a rematch with the Bulls, who had won a Game 7 at the Barclays Center to dispatch the Nets the previous postseason. From Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York:
“No,” first-year coach Jason Kidd said, bristling at the thought of his team tanking. “We had a plan from training camp, and we stuck with the plan throughout the year. We dealt with injuries, we kept minutes down, we never went away from the game plan or the big picture, and we felt we would be the No. 3, 4, 5 or 6 seed and we would have to find a way to win a playoff series no matter who the opponent is.
“The talk about tanking or whatever, we had to play the games. Unfortunately we didn’t win some of them, and we fell from fifth to sixth. But again, if you look at our injury report going into the playoffs, we achieved the biggest goal, and that was to be healthy going in. But we’ll leave that to you guys to talk about tanking.”
Added forward Paul Pierce: “Well, for one, I don’t play on teams that go out there and try to lose games. So, whatever belief [people] have, that’s what they’re going to have. And we didn’t care what matchup we had, second, whether it’s going to be Chicago or Toronto.
“We knew it was going to be inevitable it would be one of those two, regardless. So at the end of the year we had little injuries where we tried to rest guys, and at the end of the day, we was going to go on the road anyway and be the fifth or the sixth seed. Both of those teams proved to be really good teams, really elite teams in the Eastern Conference, so either road we took, it was like you’re going to walk over nails or through thorn bushes. You’ve got to take one of the roads.”
As it turned out, the road the Nets chose to travel made a pretty big difference. Brooklyn beat the third-seeded Raptors, and their displeased general manager, in seven games to advance to the second round. While the Bulls — who would never intentionally downshift down the stretch, according to their spirit-animal center, because they’re “not soft” — wound up bowing out to the fifth-seeded Wizards in five games.
There’s no guarantee that things would have worked out any differently had Brooklyn suited everybody up for those early April matchups with the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, of course.
Yes, the Nets lost all three of their regular-season meetings with the Wizards last season, while Chicago and Toronto split their season series, two games apiece. But past performance doesn’t necessarily predict future returns; here’s where we remind you that Brooklyn swept the Miami Heat four-zip last regular season before LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company dismantled Kidd’s crew in five games in Round 2 last spring.
Maybe Kidd’s versatile “long-ball” lineups would have been able to hem in John Wall and obscure his next-level floor vision while picking apart the Wizards’ stout defense with sharp passes. Maybe Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson would’ve bullied the Bulls’ interior defenders, too, making life just as miserable on Chicago’s big men as Nene and Marcin Gortat did. Maybe, even if everything was different, everything would’ve stayed the same.
Clearly, though, the Nets’ approach to the final two weeks of the season stuck in Gibson’s mind. And while a Brooklyn team that’s lost many of the principals from last year’s model and enters Friday sitting 2 1/2 games out of a playoff berth doesn’t exactly have its druthers when it comes to postseason positioning this time around, the Bulls, in a sense, do. So long as they stay in the neighborhood of the three through six seeds, the meaty middle of the Eastern pack, they’ll avoid a first-round matchup with the Hawks or Cavaliers. Chicago wouldn’t figure to quake in its boots at the prospect of winning road games in Toronto, Washington or Milwaukee, if it comes to that, and if it comes to that in the service of getting healthy — or as close to healthy as possible this late in the season — well, so be it.
Sure, the means of arrival are different, but the end seems likely to be the same — do whatever’s most likely to help your club have the best possible chance to survive and advance come the start of the second season. In the Bulls’ case, it’s about listening to your body; in the Nets’ case (allegedly), it meant (allegedly) listening to the voice in the back of your head that says, “This is a better matchup for us.”
However you get there, the goal is to be ready to face any challenge and exploit every advantage when the games matter the most. Maybe this spring, after several straight years of hard-charging disappointment, the Bulls will finally find themselves suitably equipped to do so, thanks to an early onset of the injury bug taking the bat out of their hands down the stretch.
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