As recently as March 17th—just over a month ago—the Chicago Bulls were in shambles. Losers of seven of their previous eight games, including a 20-point beatdown by the Celtics in Boston, they were 32-37 and in very real danger of missing the playoffs. On the 17th, they lost by five to the Wizards in a game that wasn’t that close as Wade sat out the first of what would turn out to be 11 straight games.
Somehow, though, the Bulls turned it around. They made the playoffs on the last day of the season, and now they sit up 2-0 on the Celtics, heading home to try to win two more and become the first eight-seed to drop a one since the first round switched to a seven-game series back in 2003.
This is not where I will make brazen proclamations. I don’t think the Bulls will sweep the Celtics, despite their overwhelming superiority in Game Two. I don’t even feel it’s a sure thing that the Bulls will win the series. But then again, I don’t think a sweep is completely unrealistic. The Bulls beat the Celtics both times they played in Chicago this season, a six-point win in the first game of the season, and a one-point win in their final game before the All-Star break. And at this point the Bulls appear poised and confident, while the Celtics are in disarray. What a difference a month makes.
To be fair, this is not a normal 1-8 scenario. The Celtics, at 53-29, won just 12 more games than the 8-seeded Bulls, and have the fewest wins of an Eastern Conference 1 seed since the 2007 Detroit Pistons, who also went 53-29. Their star, Isaiah Thomas, lost his 22-year-old sister, Chyna, in a car accident the day before the playoffs started. Meanwhile, the 41-41 Bulls have a two-way superstar in Jimmy Butler, a cerebral point guard in Rajon Rondo, and a certified playoff closer in Dwyane Wade, and they’re clicking at exactly the right time. Watching the games, it’s tough to figure out who should be the higher seed.
This is not what I expected. This is not even what I wanted. What I really wanted was for the Bulls to miss the playoffs entirely, to get a higher draft pick and more rest, and to maybe finally inspire Jerry Reinsdorf or his son to clean front office house. I thought a playoff appearance would be brief and tragic, and just enough to keep GarPax and their handpicked coach around. I did not think the Bulls would suddenly figure everything out and be on the brink of a historic upset. Yet here we are.
The Bulls absolutely should win the series at this point. They are heading home, where they were 25-16 this season. Butler has shown he can not only guard Thomas effectively—at 6’7”, he has nearly a foot on the 5’9” Thomas—but he’s willing, as he did in the fourth quarter of Game Two, to defer to Wade when the 2006 Finals MVP heats up. And Rondo, who was dismissed from the Dallas Mavericks DURING the playoffs, has been a near-psychic pest on defense and a stat-sheet filler on the other end.
At the same time, this could fall apart at literally any second. The Celtics have a lot to overcome, but they did win 53 games this year. And these Bulls are the same Bulls who, in late January, underwent something of a team-wide nervous breakdown, as both Butler and Wade were benched for comments critical of the team and Rondo expressed his own conflicting frustrations via an Instagram post.
But maybe they were right. Maybe they were all right. The olds spoke, and maybe the youngs learned. Bobby Portis helped carry the Bulls in Game One with his energy on both sides of the floor, and Paul Zipser of all people shot 6-8 from the floor (2-3 from three) in Game Two. If the Bulls can get contributions like that from youngsters every night, maybe making the playoffs will be worth it after all. And maybe it won’t be as short a run as some of us anticipated.