Bulls Playoff Berth Hard to Enjoy in Season of ‘What Might Have Been’

The Chicago Bulls suffered a blowout loss at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday in a rather ugly contest. However, the Bulls still clinched a spot in the NBA playoffs after the Orlando Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers and have made the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

It’s a wonderful accomplishment for a franchise with the fourth-worst record in the NBA from 2017-18 to 2020-2021. Still, Bulls fans probably won’t find solace in a one-and-done appearance, which feels more likely following more negative news on point guard Lonzo Ball.

At one point in the 2021-22 campaign, Chicago looked like a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. Then injuries destroyed the momentum, leaving many to wonder what might have been.

The Bulls clinched a playoff spot but received horrible Lonzo Ball news and got destroyed by the Bucks

Tuesday was one of the most jumbled days of the season for the Bulls. It began inauspiciously.

Before Chicago’s showdown with the Bucks, Head coach Billy Donovan revealed that Lonzo Ball experienced more discomfort in his injured knee when trying to ramp up to cutting and sprinting. The Bulls could shut Ball down for the remainder of the season, a massive blow to the team’s chances of making a deep playoff run.

The evening got a little better when the Magic pulled out a five-point victory over the Cavaliers, thereby cementing Cleveland’s play-in status and guaranteeing the Bulls the No. 6 seed or better. But even after that news, things felt despondent at the United Center.

A lot of that had to do with what was happening on the court.

DeMar DeRozan scored 40 points in three quarters. Second-year forward Patrick Williams had his best game since returning from injury, scoring 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with six rebounds. Good signs, right? Not exactly.

Milwaukee dominated the contest practically from the opening tip. The Bucks led by 12 at the half despite Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring five points. The Bulls could not keep Milwaukee out of the paint, and their struggles from beyond the arc continued.

The Bucks cruised to a 127-106 victory in a game that felt even more lopsided than the final score. Indeed, the contest felt like a reflection of Chicago’s inability to make noise in the playoffs.

Chicago almost certainly won’t advance past the first round of the playoffs

The Bulls’ struggles against elite teams have been part of the discourse for some time now. They haven’t been able to shake that narrative.

Tuesday’s loss to the Bucks dropped Chicago to 2-20 against top-8 teams. Those struggles are more pronounced with Ball. After all, both of their wins — beat the Celtics and Mavericks in November — against the NBA’s truly elite squads came with him in the rotation.

Indeed, Ball’s absence feels crippling.

As previously mentioned, three-point shooting has been a real issue for the Bulls. According to NBA.com, Chicago ranks 28th in three-point percentage since All-Star Weekend. Seeing as the Bulls rank last (by a good margin) in triples per game, that’s a problem.

Ball was shooting 42.3% from deep before the injury. He routinely knocked down catch-and-shoot looks and opened up the floor for DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. Without him, Chicago has had rely on Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White to knock down jumpers. They’re shooting atrocious percentages from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.

Additionally, the Bulls still suffer from the same defensive issues they’ve shown in losses earlier this season. They cannot contain dribble penetration and get caught between poor blitzes and drop coverage in pick-and-roll.

Plus, potential playoff matchups do not favor Chicago. The Bulls are a combined 0-8 against the Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, and they are likely to face one of those two teams in the first round. If not, Chicago probably has a date with the streaking Boston Celtics, who remain threatening even without Robert Williams III.

The Bulls almost definitely will not make it to the second round. Fans can already start wondering what might have been if everyone stayed healthy.

In an alternate universe …

Chicago Bulls wing DeMar DeRozan shoots a layup during an NBA game against the Milwaukee Bucks during a game in April 2022
DeMar DeRozan drives to the basket during an NBA game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Chicago Bulls on April 5, 2022 | Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The five-man lineup of Ball, Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic played just 16 games together. They shared the floor for only 95 minutes.

Yet the numbers offer a tantalizing glimpse into what a fully healthy Chicago might have looked like, particularly what DeRozan once deemed a “Big 4.” According to NBA.com, that group had a superb 12.5 net rating, including a 96.0 defensive rating. Ball and Caruso set the team’s defense with their efforts on the perimeter, excelling at the point of attack and forcing turnovers. That made things much easier on LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic.

But those five hardly even found a rhythm before injuries interceded. Caruso suffered a foot injury in December that cost him a month. The Bulls haven’t been whole since then.

Caruso’s return came right after Ball was sidelined with his knee injury. Zo’s season ended right then, and AC went right back to the sidelines after fracturing his wrist following a controversial foul by Grayson Allen.

Bulls fans never got a glimpse of the team’s actual ceiling. As Chicago stumbles into the playoffs, supporters can only wonder how much different this season could have gone if everyone had been able to stay on the floor.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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