Bulls

Weight from previous years came crashing down in one night for Bulls

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Weight from previous years came crashing down in one night for Bulls

LeBron James walked happily through the back hallways of the United Center on the way to his session with the media, chanting the name of an unlikely hero who took center stage on the most unlikely of stages.

Fortysomething feet behind James and Matthew Dellavedova was Joakim Noah, walking slowly toward the exit before exchanging actual pleasantries with Kendrick Perkins and Kyrie Irving, telling Irving to take care of his ailing body this postseason as the Cleveland Cavaliers moved onto the Eastern Conference Finals, the first team to clinch an appearance.

Two hours earlier, Noah uttered a four-letter word to himself after teammate Tony Snell fouled J.R. Smith while shooting a 3-pointer in the first half.

It wasn’t “funk”, although it could’ve described the game-long lull the Bulls were in, as their predictable offensive famine led to frustration then lastly, finality as the United Center faithful began leaving in droves when the Bulls couldn’t muster an answer against a barely-hanging on Cavaliers team in the third quarter.

The wide spread that will be etched in the minds of Bulls fans was nothing more than a confirmation of what became evident four days ago.

[MORE: Lifeless Bulls fall to Cavaliers in series-clincher]

There comes a point in every critical playoff series where it becomes clear to everyone, at least the participants, as to whom the better team is. That moment became apparent in Game 4, when the Bulls couldn’t put the struggling Cavaliers away early in the fourth quarter.

The series was lost long before James’ fadeaway jumper at the buzzer and his exemplary Game 5 performance only hammered home the fact in case there were a few who still didn’t believe.

By the time the emotion wore off late in the first quarter Thursday, the Bulls were already spent, having given the best they could muster. And the Cavaliers could sense a team finally on empty, finally with no more snap in their punches after having an endless supply for so long.

It wasn’t desperation or even panic for the Bulls. That moment for Noah was less about Snell and more about acceptance and submission, not only about the series but this era—one that seems headed for a change in direction on the sidelines, and plenty of tacit finger-pointing between now and October.

In the days ahead, there will be conversations about the Bulls’ effort in the second half, where they appeared to be in quicksand and unable or unwilling to rise up in the effort to put together a winning performance.

In the end, the task was too difficult for a team that took too many punches, both physical and psychological, finally deciding “no mas” when the Cavs appeared to figure them out and weren’t backing down.

“I like the fight in our guys. It was an up and down year, but there was no quit,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whose future is first on the docket of speculation. “They hung tough and found a way to win games. We wanted to give it our best shot and it did not work out for us.”

Perhaps Noah could leave the building breathing a sigh of relief for the first time in a long time, as the Cavaliers mercifully put the Bulls out of their misery in an underwhelming blowout to end the Bulls’ champagne hopes.

[RELATED: LeBron lauds Delly's, Thompson's efforts in Cavs' Game 6 win]

The relief could likely come from the definitiveness in which the Cavaliers dismissed the Bulls, doing it in a manner that used to be so Bulls-like and also extinguishing the long-held beliefs of the past few years that stated if they were fully healthy, they could take down whichever team James was playing on.

The evidence was startling and more importantly for the tortured of heart, non-negotiable. It was the Cavaliers who were short-handed, prompting Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy to say the most dangerous animal was a wounded animal—and nobody wearing white jerseys took heed to the warning.

Usually it’s the Bulls who have to deal with such adversity, relying on no-names to boost them to unpredictable finishes, but nobody expected Dellavedova, James Jones or J.R. Smith to be the ones to take the Bulls out with such ease.

But instead of a charging Cavaliers team that looked too strong, the weight of expectations, of unfulfilled promise likely burdened the Bulls after Game 5—their last, best shot, that again, came up short.

To pick themselves off the mat appears so easy in theory, evidenced by the San Antonio Spurs bouncing back from a debilitating loss in the NBA Finals in 2013 to romping past the opponent that dished out the heartbreak 12 months later.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

But the Spurs were without controversy and possessing the muscle memory from championship wins to know what it was going to take to get back—something these Bulls haven’t experienced.

It was an outcome Bulls fans prayed for, to finally overcome the boogeyman with twenty-three emblazoned across his chest—but all they know is heartbreak and heartache, especially from that man.

“They played better than us and they won the series,” Pau Gasol said. “They did a much better job than we did. They were in a close-out situation which gives you extra confidence and a burst. They decided to move on.”

For once, though, they can go into an offseason not complaining about the Big Bad Boogeyman from Cleveland (or Miami), or pondering how they’d fare if Lady Luck were on their side.

But what do you do when there’s no more “what if”?

You have to deal with reality—and that is much more difficult to fathom than fantasy.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.