With the game and perhaps the Bulls' season on the line against the Wizards on Tuesday night at the United Center, guard Kirk Hinrich took the ball to the basket on the final possession of a 101-99 overtime loss.
That alone summed up the biggest problem this Bulls team cannot overcome. The most qualified player to take a big shot in the playoffs to bring the Bulls closer to a championship is either wearing a suit on the bench or beginning his offseason in New York. But without Derrick Rose or Carmelo Anthony to save the day the way superstars do, the best the Bulls thought they could do was Hinrich, who wasn't even the best option on the floor.
Still, Hinrich penetrated, drew a foul on Nene with 2.4 seconds left and the 80 percent career free-throw shooter went to the line down two with a chance to tie the game. His first attempt clanked off the back of the rim, making the second one as irrelevant as any positives that happened as the Bulls fell behind 2-0 in the series.
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"I was a little shocked he missed,'' Taj Gibson said. "But he's human. If that happens any other time, I'd still go with Kirk.''
Blind loyalty is cute, but Hinrich missing a free throw didn't lose this game as much as the Bulls missing the point down the stretch did.
Hinrich had missed four key shots in a 3-minute span. You're not in Kansas anymore, Kirk. As difficult as D.J. Augustin was to stop, as tired as Hinrich appeared, the shot selection during the most critical possessions defied logic. Coach Tom Thibodeau explained that the final play had three options but Hinrich really should have been the fourth one.
"Tonight, I just couldn't do it,'' Hinrich said. "I really felt that I should have made the layup.''
Truth is, he never should have been the one taking it, but the only thing worse than the Bulls' judgment in a tight game was the officiating. With the score tied at 91 with 10.5 seconds left in regulation, Gibson clearly had possession on the floor and asked for a timeout, but officials called jump ball and deprived the Bulls a chance to win.
"I said 'Timeout' three times,'' Gibson said.
Then on the jump ball, Nene got away with grabbing Gibson's arm without having a foul called.
"Heads up,'' Gibson said. "We've got to come back.''
A night that ended with pain and regret began with pomp and circumstance. With a handshake instead of a finger wag, former NBA center Dikembe Mutombo presented Joakim Noah with the Defensive Player of the Year award before tipoff. Noah triumphantly raised the trophy over his head at midcourt, smiled from ear to ear and soaked in the applause showered on him from the crowd of 21,663.
It was one of the few times the Bulls celebrated anything related to defense. Good thing for the Bulls that their offense compensated to keep things interesting until sputtering for a 7-minute, 38-second scoreless stretch in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Augustin, in a postseason performance reminiscent of Nate Robinson a year ago, came off the bench to score 25 points. He hit 3s from the 708 area code and handled the pick-and-roll with Noah expertly enough to have the ball in his hands on the final possession. Noah returned to his All-Star form with 20 points and 12 boards; Gibson gave the Bulls instant energy and offense with 22.
The visitors made themselves right at home immediately, hitting 10 of their first 15 shots to set a tone and build confidence. The Bulls came out flat, trailing screens and lacking zip. Whatever subtle adjustments they made didn't include ratcheting up the defensive intensity.
Now we know why coach Randy Wittman's group wasn't dreading the thought of matching up against the athletically inferior Bulls. After struggling in their first playoff games Sunday, John Wall and Bradley Beal combined for 42 points, with Beal dominating the fourth quarter with 11.
Not until 4:10 remained in the second quarter did the Bulls show the spunk the league has come to expect. Hinrich and Beal got tangled up before an out-of-bounds play and drew double technicals, inciting fans and igniting teammates. Tempers flared again in the second half when Noah and Trevor Ariza earned double technicals for exchanging shoves that would have been considered an exchange of pleasantries in the 1980s. At times, Bulls-Wizards began to feel like Blackhawks-Blues.
That series looks destined to go seven games. This one doesn't.
Unless the Bulls find the answers en route to Washington, this could have been their last home game of the season.