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.
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.
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.