CHICAGO – The person responsible for running the large United Center video board and keeping a late-arriving crowd engaged Monday night certainly had his work cut out for him.
But I'll be darned if he didn't try everything. Drums pounded. Trumpets blared. Video images of Bulls championship teams of the past flashed across the screen. Cartoon cups of coffee raced around the streets of Chicago, popular dance music filled the air.
Fans in the nosebleed seats high above where the Bulls' forgettable 88-65 loss to Miami in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals took the baton from the videoboard operator. They chanted. They whistled. But by the time their verbal efforts drifted to the floor, the energy – much like the team they handed over their hard-earned money to root for – evaporated into nothing.
By the end of the third quarter – the 12-minute stretch when the Bulls scored all of nine points – fans had all but given up. When Marco Belineilli air-balled a 3-point attempt, groans barely escaped. When Joakim Noah air-mailed a pass three rows behind the Heat bench, the displeasure amounted to nothing more than a quiet, collective sigh.
And when LeBron James, who has received virtually every form of verbal abuse during his Second City visit, lined up to breeze past a Bulls defender as time ticked off the clock, the boos that had become commonplace every time James touched the ball never materialized.
At that point, fans figured, it didn't matter.
Nothing worked. Not for the video board dude. Not for the Bulls, who now face a all-but-impossible 3-1 deficit heading into Wednesday's Game 5 in Miami.
Afterward, Nate Robinson, who missed each of his 12 shots on a night when the Bulls shot 25.7 percent from the floor, sat in front of his locker with an ice pack wrapped around his shoulder. A few feet away, Noah slumped in his chair waiting to put his feet into a blue rubbermaid container filled with ice water.
Both acknowledged how badly things had gone. They admitted how the 55 shots the Bulls missed had drained their energy and and how miserable defense made things way to easy for the NBA's defending champions.
But just as quickly, both suggested the Bulls – depleted and deflated as they are – aren't yet dead in the water.
"We're not worn out at all," Robinson said. "There's a lot of basketball left. We'll be all right."
Maybe that's true for the Heat, who, despite playing far from their best game, made Monday night's victory look simple. But to suggest that the Bulls – whose third-leading scorer in the loss was Rip Hamilton (let that sink in for a minute) can somehow muster up enough energy to bring the series back home Friday night is outrageous.
"For us, we just have to go (to Miami) and get that one (game)," Robinson said. "Then, we'll come back home and try and steal another one. One game at a time."
Realistically, one game is all the Bulls have left. They've played courageously all year without Derrick Rose and during these playoffs without Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. But Monday's lackluster showing proved that this team is doing nothing more than running on fumes.
At some point, being undermanned and overwhelmed talent-wise was going to catch up with the Bulls. We've reached that point and the city now belongs to the Blackhawks. Even if the team that shares space in the United Center with the NHL's best team won't admit it.
"It's not easy and it is what it is," Noah said. "But we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've just got to keep fighting...We're disappointed, but we just have to forget about it and move on."
Jeff Arnold is a sports reporter for The Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @NWH_JeffArnold.