It’s Saturday morning as I write this, a sunny, somewhat warm Chicago day, meaning Joakim Noah won’t have to worry about snow much longer.
(And shout out to my dude Bryan Crawford for telling Noah about the snow.)
More importantly, we’re less than 36 hours away from tip-off of Bulls-Wizards Game 1, a series that makes the Bulls one of five teams to have nine postseason trips in the past ten years. (The others? The Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Nuggets.)
Yes, it was nine years ago this week that the Bulls began their first postseason since John Stockton’s three-pointer clanked hopelessly off the Delta Center rim in 1998. After five last-place division finishes in six seasons (they finished third-from-last with a 30-win 2003), the Bulls won 45 games in 2005, earned the East’s 4 seed and hosted the Washington Wizards in a first-round series.
So it’s fitting that they’ll open their 9th postseason in ten years by once again hosting the Wizards. I’m a sucker for symmetry. This ten-year run is not the 14 straight playoffs we posted from ’85 to ’98. But it’s been steady, and a whole lot more fun than winning 25% of our games for six years.
Before we kick it off with Bulls-Wiz ’14, a look back at nine great seasons of Bulls playoff basketball, starting with…
Playoff Series Rankings
(Ordered on a scale of FUN to NOT FUN)
THE 1990s MICHAEL JORDAN DIVISION: TONS OF FUN
1. FIRST ROUND, 2007, 4-0 VS. MIAMI HEAT
While the 2009 Celtics series was unquestionably the most objectively fun series of the 12, I’d rather sweep the defending champs than lose to them in 7. Our first series win in the post-ring era was a brutalization of the defending champion Heat, with a breakout performance from Luol Deng who missed the ’05 playoffs and had three games in single digits in 2006.
He scored 33 points in Game 1, the top game among all players in the series, and averaged 26.3 points (tops in the series) and 9.0 rebounds, second only to Ben Wallace’s 9.8.
Deng’s performance even altered the course of subsequent NBA championships, since it was Deng’s high stock following this season that led Kobe Bryant to nix any Kobe-to-the-Bulls deal that sent Luol to L.A. and, in Kobe’s mind, leaving the Bulls underserved for a potential Kobe-Bulls championship.
2. FIRST ROUND, 2013, 4-3 AT BROOKLYN NETS
Like the ’07 Heat series, this series has one crucial element missing from the ’09 Celtics series — the Bulls won. Game 7 in Brooklyn with a depleted (and that’s being generous) Bulls lineup was one of the great efforts in Bulls playoffs history. (Here’s what I wrote after that game.) How banged up were the Bulls? Daequan Cook was on the floor when the buzzer sounded.
This series featured nail-biters in Games 3 (Bulls by 3) and 6 (Nets by 3), but the gem was the triple overtime Game 4, led by Nate Robinson’s 34 points, a Bulls franchise record for points scored by a reserve in a playoff game.
A year after getting knocked out by the 8th seed Sixers following a few, ahem, injuries, finding the strength to overcome the favored Nets despite setbacks was a powerful testament to will, work ethic and maximizing ones talent. A true gift to all those who witnessed it.
THE 1980s MICHAEL JORDAN DIVISION: LOTS OF HIGHLIGHTS, ULTIMATELY DISAPPOINTING
3. FIRST ROUND, 2009, 3-4 AT BOSTON CELTICS
It’s hard to lose a playoffs series and walk away thinking, “Hot damn, that was fun.” If it’s ever happened, it was in 2009. One year after seeming like the Eastern Conference’s next big thing, the Bulls fell apart in 2008, fired their coach, traded fan favorite Andres Nocioni for John Salmons and lucked into the draft’s #1 selection. With it came hometown boy Derrick Rose, the Rookie of the Year and future MVP who helped the Bulls win 11 of their final 14 games to finish 41-41, good for the East’s 7th seed and a date with the Celtics.
The series then turned into one ESPN Classic after another:
Game 1, TD Banknorth Garden, overtime: Bulls 105, Celtics 103
THE STORY: Rose scores 36 points, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for points in a playoff debut. His 11 assists made him the youngest player ever (20-years-old) to drop 35 points and 10 assists in a playoff game.
Game 2, TD Banknorth Garden: Celtics 118, Bulls 115
THE STORY: This game turned into a shootout between UConn guards, with Ben Gordon scoring 42 points and Ray Allen scoring 30 including the game-winning three. Gordon scored 14 points in the 4th quarter; Allen scored 12 all on three-pointers.
Game 3, United Center: Celtics 107, Bulls 86
THE STORY: Only dud of the series. Bulls were down 22 at the half and were booed by the hometown fans. Trailed by 34 with five minutes to go but scraped out the 21 point loss.
Game 4, United Center, double overtime: Bulls 121, Celtics 118
THE STORY: This is where the series came to life. In danger of falling behind the defending champs three games to one, the Bulls won a double overtime thriller most famous for Ben Gordon’s game-saving, sack-grabbing three at the end of the first overtime. Rose’s 23 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists were all team-highs — he was one assist shy from becoming the youngest player in league history to nab a postseason triple-double. (LeBron is the record holder — he did it twice as a 21-year-old.)
Game 5, TD Banknorth Garden, overtime: Celtics 106, Bulls 104
THE STORY: This is where the series turned ominous and spiteful. After Paul Pierce hit a jumper to give the C’s a two-point lead with 3.4 seconds remaining in OT, the Bulls ran an inbounds play that somehow got Brad Miller WIDE open at the top of the key. Miller took one dribble followed by two steps before rising for what was sure to be a game-tying layup.
Instead, with no other options, Celtics guard Rajon Rondo raked Miller across the face in a “block” attempt. The ball rimmed out and Miller fell to the ground. Dazed and bloodied — he needed ten stitches in his mouth after the game — Miller missed the first free throw to more or less end the game.
Game 6, United Center, triple overtime: Bulls 128, Celtics 127
THE STORY: This is where the series became legendary. The series was already the first in NBA history with three overtime games, and Game 6’s three overtimes gave it seven overtime periods for the series, also a record.
Game 6 is most famous for Joakim Noah’s steal-dribble-dunk sequence on Paul Pierce (my take from 2009) that gave the Bulls a three-point lead with 35 seconds left in the third OT, but don’t forget about Ray Allen scoring 51 points on a playoffs record-tying nine threes or big-time performances from Rose (28-8-7), Salmons (35 points) and Miller (23-10 off the bench).
Game 7, TD Banknorth Garden: Celtics 109, Bulls 99
THE STORY: The fairy tale ends. After leading at the end of the first, the Bulls get blown out in the second quarter 29-11 and never get closer than three points. Gordon scores 33 points in the final game of his Bulls career — perhaps fittingly, he was the team’s leading scorer in all four losses and none of the wins. (My Ben Gordon retrospective from 2009.)
THE SCOTTIE PIPPEN DIVISION: JUST GOOD FUN
4. FIRST ROUND, 2011, 4-1 vs. INDIANA PACERS
5. SECOND ROUND, 2011, 4-2 vs. ATLANTA HAWKS
I’m lumping these two series together, because it was the domination of the Pacers combined with a solid defeat of the Hawks that made Bulls fans feel as if this team had turned a corner. Neither stands out as being a clearly more fun series than the other. The Indiana series was a thumping, but the Hawks series put us in our first Eastern Conference Finals since 1998.
Highlights of the 11 games were Rose scoring 39 in Game 1 vs. Indiana and 44 in Game 3 vs. Atlanta. Highlights of the 44 point game coming in a later section, so here is the 39er:
THE ELTON BRAND DIVISION: FUN FOR A WHILE, ULTIMATELY NOT FUN
6. FIRST ROUND, 2005, 2-4 vs. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
7. FIRST ROUND, 2006, 2-4 at MIAMI HEAT
The first Bulls playoff series since the 1998 Finals started with rookie Andres Nocioni scoring 25 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, one of only six 25-15’s in Bulls playoffs history. I attended that game, and the pressure release at the U.C. after six postseason-less seasons gave me chills.
The Bulls crushed in Game 2 but then dropped four straight, including a heartbreaking Game 5, in which we erased a ten-point lead with 40 seconds to go only to see Gilbert Arenas slay us at the buzzer.
As for the 2006 series vs. the Heat, we lost the first two games, won the next two, and lost the final two.
Upsides of this series: We found out that Mike Sweetney’s nickname was “Big Footwork” during a starting lineup intro on TV… We saw three Bulls average twenty points for the series (Nocioni, Gordon, Hinrich)… We made it onto a championship video (Miami’s, but whatever).
Downsides of this series: Shaq eviscerated us in Game 6 with 30 points and 20 boards, the second-oldest player since at least 1964 to drop a 30-20 in the playoffs. At least we made him sad a year later.
THE TYSON & EDDY DIVISION: SOME UPSIDE, BUT MOSTLY DOWNSIDE
8. SECOND ROUND, 2007, 2-4 at DETROIT PISTONS
9. FIRST ROUND, 2010, 1-4 at CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
That Pistons series was arguably the most hyped of any on this list, even more than the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, if only because we’d been building to it ever since the summer of 2006 when the Bulls signed Ben Wallace. This series felt like destiny…
…but it quickly fell to pieces: lost Games 1 and 2 by a combined 46 points in Detroit, then came home with that “It’s okay, we’ll win at home” mindset, led Game 3 44-28 at halftime, and lost by 7. Recovered to win Game 4 at home, and then won Game 5 in Detroit, setting up a home Game 6 with dreams of at least making it to Game 7.
Nope. Pistons roll.
(Weird trivia: Who led the Bulls in scoring in the final playoff game of the pre-Derrick Rose era? P.J. Brown, with 20 points.)
The Cavs series in 2010 was an execution. We’d been sentenced to death at the hands of a Cavaliers firing squad led by the league’s best player. There was nothing to do during that series but enjoy the show, the challenge and the improved play of Rose & Noah.
I wrote at length about this series (Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5) so I’ll leave you with mentioning that this has got to be the saddest “We just won a playoff game” press conference in the history of sports:
Maybe he sensed that this was coming three days later:
THE TIM FLOYD ERA DIVISION: LET’S GET THIS OVER WITH
10. SECOND ROUND, 2013, 1-4 at MIAMI HEAT
By the time the Bulls reached their second round series with Miami (the third matchup with LeBron in four years), they were on their last legs. In Noah’s case, literally. And he was one of the healthy ones. (My injury parody column before Game 4.)
The Bulls stole Game 1 and then lost the next three by an average of 23 point per game during which Joakim Noah got flipped off by a crazy Miami woman once accused of murdering her husband. When it ended, I for one was grateful.
THE JAY WILLIAMS CRASHED HIS MOTORCYCLE DIVISION: I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT, BUT SURELY NOT THIS
11. EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS, 2011, 1-4 vs. MIAMI HEAT
The Bulls ROLLED in Game 1, holding LeBron to 15 points and winning by 21. Then their season crashed into a tree. Miami tied the series by closing Game 2 on a 12-2 run after being tied at 73 in the 4th, won Game 3 by 11, won Game 4 by eight in overtime and stole Game 5 with a game-clinching 18-3 run to scrape out a three-point win and a trip to the Finals.
THE JOHN STARKS ON THE BULLS DIVISION: THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING
12. FIRST ROUND, 2012, 2-4 vs. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
A lot of Bulls fans have forgotten the short-lived John Starks era of 2000 (I can’t find any video, thank God, and can only find one good picture) but no Bulls fan will ever forget the sight of Derrick Rose pulling up lame on a jumpstop at the end of a Game 1 win over Philly. Like Bryan Crawford wrote a year later about the mood at the United Center that day: “It felt like a funeral.”
When we learned Derrick was out for the playoffs, I started calculating the odds of knocking off the CELTICS in Round 2, and then wondering how we might fair against Miami. But ye gods! I never thought that we wouldn’t even beat the Sixers.
Coming tomorrow: The best performances, best games and best dunks from the 2005-2013 Bulls playoffs.