Frustrating but thrilling

The other night, I went to the gym next door to the office to watch the second half of game 5 of the Bulls-Celtics series. There is one bank of TVs hanging on the ceiling in the cardio section, so I climbed on an elliptical machine, which is all my physical therapist has cleared me for, and plugged my headphones into the TV audio jack. The display didn't light up, though, so I moved to another machine. Same result. I realized eventually that the audio jacks were powered by the machines, so I had to maintain a certain minimum speed on any machine to keep the audio running. Clever.

By the time I got going, I figured 45 minutes would be enough. As you know, I was wrong. The game went into overtime, and about an hour and 45 minutes later, having sweat about twelve gallons, my legs quivering, I staggered back to work.

Thank goodness I didn't try to watch tonight's game from the gym, they might have had to retire an elliptical machine in my honor after I died sometime in one of those three overtimes.

Not living in Chicago anymore, it's harder to follow my hometown teams, but I still follow them in the postseason when they make it onto national TV. Since the glory years of MJ, it's been grim. The Bulls had terrible seasons and high draft picks for many years, but they never seemed to land that one superstar you need to build around to win it all in the NBA.

1999 top pick overall Elton Brand was solid, not spectacular, but the Bulls traded him away essentially for Tyson Chandler, who was a solid shot blocker and rebounder but whose offensive repertoire never extended beyond the dunk. The other Chicago first rounder Ron Artest was a good pick but also got traded away in a deal for, essentially Jalen Rose.

In 2000 3 first round picks turned into Marcus Fizer, Jamal Crawford, and Dalibor Bagaric. Not a great draft overall, but no lasting pieces out of that group. I have to avoid using the word twin towers to refer to 2001, though that was the year we grabbed Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry with the second and fourth picks of the first round. One skinny, one fat, neither good enough in a draft that produced Pau Gasol, Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, Zach Randolph, and Tony Parker, among others.

In 2002, Jay Williams. Seemed like a great talent when he pulled off an early triple-double against Jason Kidd, but then he got on a motorcycle, expressly forbidden by his contract, and crashed into a light pole.

2003, the Bulls really wanted Dwaye Wade, but they were two picks too late and obtained Kirk Hinrich. Solid, a player who plays tough defense, but limited offensively by an inability to finish around the basket and a solid but not spectacular jumpshot. 2004 brought Ben Gordon with the third pick, Luol Deng with the seventh. Gordon will always inspire a love/hate relationship. Beautiful jump shot, and when he's hot, he can carry the offense. He's always been one of the few pure scorers on Bulls teams that have struggled to do so over the years. But he's short and not particularly tenacious on defense, and to good opposing guards he gives away as many points as he scores. Deng seemed to be developing for a couple years in a row, and then he got the big contract and his development stalled with a series of injuries.

No pick in 2005. In 2006 the Bulls drafted LaMarcus Aldridge and traded him for the guy taken two picks later, Tyrus Thomas, a freakish athlete and shot blocking machine who seems destined to always be one of those players whom everyone thinks should be better than he is until the day we realize he is the sum of his parts and nothing more. In hindsight we'd rather have Aldridge who has developed a polished post game. Thomas needs to lock himself in a gym all summer and shoot five hundred 18 footers a day until he can be a threat running the pick and roll with Rose.

2007 brought Joakim Noah. At pick 9 in that draft, not a bad pick, though he seems more in the Tyson Chandler mold of high energy tall guys who can only be complements on offense because of a lack of any offensive moves or jump shot. He's the type of player you hate when playing pickup if he's on the other team, but if he's on your team you love him as he runs around, harassing opposing players on defense, snagging rebounds with hustle, getting it back for you to shoot.

And finally, in 2008, perhaps out of exasperation, the fates finally dropped the magic ping pong balls and gave the Bulls the top pick. They managed to avoid drafting Beasley and went with Derrick Rose, and suddenly hope returned to the United Center. Rose is still raw, still half coal, half diamond, but when he has his moments, he flashes the type of potential that projects to superstardom, something you can't say of the aforementioned players the Bulls have drafted. He still needs to solidify his jump shot, add a 3-point shot, cut down on the silly turnovers, and use his strength and speed better on defense. He doesn't seem assertive enough considering he is the centerpiece around which this team will be built--a more boring interviewee I have yet to see--but that may come in time.

On the positive side, his top speed on the dribble is world class, his finishing ability around the basket with either hand is fantastic, and he can covers as much ground with his strides as maybe Lebron. He'll blow by his defender above the free throw line, from just inside the 3-point line, and two strides later he's laying the ball in with one hand. It's videogame-level freakish.


This history of frustration mixed with excitement extends to this series. On the one hand, I want to tear my hair out.

  • Vinny Del Negro is a terrible coach. Forget running out of time outs. When he does call time outs at key parts of games, he must be doing Sudoku on his clipboard because the plays coming out of those time outs are routinely terrible.

  • Ben Gordon and John Salmons are just hard to watch at times. They regularly enter this zone where their teammates fade into the background, and they dribble and dribble and go one on one with their man, culminating in some crazy off-balance jump shot. When the Bulls have one chance to get a score for the win, coming out of a time out, I reflexively throw up in my mouth before the ball is even inbounded.

  • On defense, Ben Gordon is terrible, easily picked off by screens. There are times when every one in the stadium knows the ball is going to Jesus Shuttleworth, and if Gordon is guarding him, I know Ray Ray will get a great look. Allen is no defender to write home about, but Gordon makes him look like Ron Artest.

  • NBA officiating is horrendous. Still. Rajon Rondo has been amazing, unbelievable, a freakish talent, but he should be sitting out game 7 after the hit on Brad Miller's face and then the swinging elbow at Hinrich. I don't buy the excuse that you can't call that on a star player at the end of the game, but Rondo, a smart player, knows it's the case and knows to push the limits in key moments of the game, giving light shoves, grabbing jerseys, little things that he knows the officials won't call on him. NBA games in the playoffs feel "loosely scripted" because of the officiating, like an episode of The Hills. The poor base level of officiating has slowly sapped my interest in the NBA over the years.

  • Every time the Bulls seem poised to steal the momentum, it seems like Rose drives into traffic and turns the ball over. He still has that rookie penchant for playing out of control at times.

On the other hand, how can I complain about what will be the longest 7-game playoff series in NBA history. The only suitable way this can end is with a 6 overtime thriller on Saturday, which will end with so many players fouling out that Vinny Del Negro and Doc Rivers will have to tear off their suits and engage in a game of Knockout to decide the series. Among the positives:

  • Sometimes Gordon and Salmons get hot. They fall into that class of "! NO! AHH! YES! Oh my god! YES! WHOOO!" players because they horrify you with some of the shots they take, but when they go in, you cheer almost out of disbelief. Doug Collins' reaction to the crazy one-handed lean-in jumpshot by Gordon shot at the end of Game 5 was a classic example of that. For all the reasons mentioned earlier, the two players are tough to watch, but when they're not on the floor, it's hard for the Bulls to score. When Gordon enters one of his zones, as in game 2, it's comically fun to watch; it's like he's a videogame character who's obtained enough points to activate some sort of indestructible frenzy mode.

  • Kirk Hinrich coming off the bench is a real asset. As a starter his faults seemed too prominent, but off the bench his defense and ballhandling and leadership are far more than you'd expect from a sub.

  • I like seeing KG's crazy intense pumped-up face when his teammates do something good. He lopes around, fists clenched, jaw clenched, like he's going to punch one of his teammates in the face. If, in the middle of game 7, he starts pacing the sidelines because his team is down, then suddenly tears off his Italian suit from the collar, revealing a Celtics jersey underneath, and subs into the game, even I will be off my sofa cheering.

  • Having Brad Miller back is fun. I missed him when the Bulls traded him years back. He's as slow as a glacier, with the vertical leap you can measure with your thumb and index finger, but he passes well and can shoot. The Bulls don't have any player with real post moves, so good shooters are critical to help them score enough points to compete.

  • Joakim is on our team, so I like him. I was sending text messages to my brothers and sisters all during game 6, usually to commiserate after one of Del Negro's terrible play calls coming out of a time out. After the game, Joannie mentioned that she really liked the guy with the long hair. It didn't surprise me. To someone who doesn't watch much basketball, his hustle and emotion are very visible. He wants to win, and you can't fault him for that.

  • In this Bulls team, you can see a nucleus to build around.

I don't think the Bulls will win on Saturday, not on the road, but as long as it's not decided by the officials, I'll be happy.

Well, maybe I'd like one more overtime, too. At this point, it seems only appropriate.