Tonight for the first time in my life, I watched an NBA game at the United Center and rooted for the road team. When the stadium first opened for the 1994-95 season, I was all of 10 years old — and on a hiatus as a Bulls fan. Little did I know that on March 19 of that very season, the inaugural season for the new stadium, my sports idol would return and bring me back to the TV for the team’s WGN broadcasts.
The first stage of the comeback was rough, and I witnessed my first and only experience of the Bulls getting eliminated from the playoffs even with Michael Jordan. The next three seasons were of course blissful, and I rarely missed a game. If there’s one franchise and stadium I entered this fan experiment with a pre-existing soft spot for, it’s the Bulls and the United Center. Despite the fact that the team’s fortunes have improved dramatically since the early post-Jordan years, they’re still a shadow of what they were when I loved them.
In fact, you could make an argument that the Bulls are not as good as their record indicates. Although they’re holding their own in a competitive Eastern Conference with a 23-16 record following the loss to Dallas, Basketball Reference sees them as a decidedly worse team and ranks them just 13th in its Simple Rating System, which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule.
While the Bulls are a strong defensive team and very dominant on the boards, they lack the offensive firepower to really make their mark in the league, and that showed clearly last night. With both teams failing to crack 40 percent from the field, it was a pretty brutal thing to experience. It’s highly doubtful the Mavs can expect to win too many games playing the way they did, but fortunately the Bulls were feeling generous and awful.
Fatigue likely has a lot to do with it. Chicago was playing the final game of a four-game, five-night stretch, and they had just wrapped up an exhausting overtime win against the 76ers the previous day. Whatever the reason, they shot 36 percent from the field, including a hilarious 10 percent from three-point range. After scoring 53 points against Philadelphia, Jimmy Butler managed all of 4 points on 2-for-11 from the field, and really no one aside from Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol could get anything going for a very stagnant Bulls’ offense.
It wasn’t much better for the Mavericks, who basically turned into the Dirk Nowitzki–Deron Williams show to put the Bulls away in the fourth quarter. Dirk didn’t shoot particularly well at 6-for-15, but he did knock down an absolute dagger of a three to put the Mavs up by seven with just over two minutes left to play.
He finished with a 21-point, 7-rebound effort, and Deron contributed 18 points with 6 assists. No one else on the Mavericks could even muster up the energy to hit double digits, although Wes Matthews had a few nifty finishes inside and deserves some credit for defending Butler, albeit a tired, largely lifeless version of Butler. Chandler Parsons had his moments too, and while he didn’t make a huge impact on the stat card, he did finish +13, a mark that only Dirk beat.
Let’s be clear: this was not a good game for either side. It was a flat performance from each playoff-hopeful team, and one to quickly forget. That doesn’t take away from the importance of the win for Dallas, however, as they aren’t quite done with this ridiculous portion of the schedule yet, and a loss here would have meant three straight with a game against the Spurs looming.
Making matters even more stressful is the fact that the Rockets and Grizzlies are both breathing down the Mavericks’ neck. One prolonged bad spell, and Dallas will find themselves firmly entrenched in the seventh spot, a first round matchup against the Spurs looming. No one wants that. To be fair, though, it isn’t likely that any of those top four West teams are losing to their first round opponents.