One year and two weeks ago the Bulls took the United Center floor facing elimination. Squaring off against an upbeat Washington Wizards team led by a pair of blossoming guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal, Tom Thibodeau's group proceeded to shoot 33 percent from the field and tied a franchise playoff-low with 69 points in a Game 5 loss, a disappointing end to a season in which they admittedly overachieved yet still fell short of the championship aspirations they had when the season began.
With that infamous performance in mind, GM Gar Forman and the Bulls used that offseason to re-tool their offensive arsenal. A healthy Derrick Rose returned after essentially two years away from the game. The front office agreed to a deal with overseas rookie Nikola Mirotic. Jimmy Butler locked himself in a Houston house with no internet or cable, focusing on nothing but basketball. The team signed veteran Pau Gasol two weeks after trading up for and drafting sharpshooter Doug McDermott. They also added shoot-first point guard Aaron Brooks to complement a second unit that touted Taj Gibson and Tony Snell.
The massive overhaul was indeed a required one. The Bulls had ranked dead last in points per game the previous two seasons, and even under a defensive genius in Thibodeau realized the current group simply wasn't going to cut it in the playoffs, when every team has the ability to tally 100 points on a given night.
The results were telling. Despite a myriad of injuries to key players over the course of the season, the Bulls finished the regular season ranked 10th in offensive efficiency, showed off terrific balance as one of three teams (OKC, ORL) with three players averaging 17 or more points per game (Butler/Gasol/Rose) and went 35-10 when scoring 100 or more points. Their defensive prowess continued, finishing 11th in defensive efficiency, and they also proved they could win games by outscoring teams rather than simply out-uglying their opponent in a 12-round boxing tilt.
And still, 54 weeks later, the Bulls find themselves in the same predicament, facing elimination at home without any idea of which offensive group will show up Thursday night against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Rose has lost his hot shooting touch from earlier in the series. Gasol is banged up and will give all he can with a bum hamstring. The bench, which was supposed to be a major advantage against Cleveland, has done nothing but fire blanks. Joakim Noah has become a shell of himself that the Cavaliers defense isn't honoring in the slightest, switching any ball screen he sets and not worrying about what may happen on a mismatch in the post.
The Cavaliers defense has been superb in the series. Though they were better defensively in the regular season with Kevin Love off the court, they're still down one of their superstars while trying to hide a hobbled Kyrie Irving on defensive sets whenever possible. Even LeBron James has been matched up with Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy a considerable amount in an attempt to keep him fresh for offensive sets, where his playoff usage is at a career-high without Love and a 100 percent Irving.
And how have the Bulls responded? By shooting less than 41 percent from the field - less than 39 percent since their offensive barrage in Game 1 - including 39.5 percent combined shooting form their backcourt duo of Rose and Butler, which also was supposed to be an advantage and their main key to success. Chicago's effective field goal percentage - which weighs 3-pointers more heavily - in the series is 45.6 percent, a number that would have tied Charlotte for worst in the NBA in the regular season.
The maddening part of it all is that the offense has been crisp everywhere else. They've turned the ball over on 12 percent of possessions, the best mark in the second round of the eight teams remaining, and their 28.6 percent offensive rebounding rate is also the NBA's best mark this round - they have 83 second-chance points in five games. They haven't earned as many trips to the free throw line against a stout Cavaliers defense that has defended to near-perfection at the rim (Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson should teach verticality classes in the offseason) and received stellar contributions from Iman Shumpert on the perimeter. Still, their offensive execution has been there, minus that little part about putting the ball in the hoop.
Thibodeau, ever a perfectionist on the defensive end, noted after Game 5 that offense wasn't the problem, citing the Bulls' 101 points in a losing effort. But to get to the century mark the Bulls needed a frantic fourth quarter in which they shot 7-for-13 in a 7-minute span that cut the Cavs' lead from 17 to two. And even then, the Bulls still shot just 40 percent from the field and needed 41 shots in the paint to score 38 points (in contrast, Cleveland took 32 shot in the paint to score 40 points).
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It would be easy to point to Gasol's absence as a factor in the low offensive output. But the Spaniard shot a combined 6-for-15 in Games 2 and 3 and can't be expected to carry a load playing in Game 6 on a hamstring he admitted was at 40 percent two days ago.
The onus must be put on Rose and Butler, the team's two volume shooters and healthy stars, to find the right shots and knock them down with confidence like they did in Game 1, when they combined for 45 points. Of course, it goes deeper than that. The Bulls need to find ways to free up Dunleavy, Noah must face the basket and find open cutters (and not take any more lefty layups) and a bench which has combined to shoot under 39 percent has to give some kind of spark when Butler and Rose get their few minutes of rest.
Slowing down James and a Cavaliers offense that's hitting their stride late in the series would be the optimal solution for the Bulls. It just isn't feasible. At some point - with that "point" being a do-or-die Game 6 occurring later tonight - the Bulls must make good on what their entire offseason plan of attack was predicated on: finding the scoring to compete in the postseason.
They'll score more than 69 points. But if they can't start making shots, the end result will feel just the same.