CHICAGO – In an instant, a quiet start by the Bulls was replaced by an ear-splitting ovation Tuesday at the United Center.
Naturally, I was looking down at my computer screen when the ovation rocked the building. I always miss the good stuff.
Why the roar? Had Joakim Noah drained a sideways-spinning jump shot from half court? Had Taj Gibson shattered the backboard on a dunk? Had Carlos Boozer played defense?
No, no and no.
Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell had appeared on the scoreboard during a timeout, smiling and waving from a luxury box. Bickell enjoyed his night off by supporting the Bulls, and a sellout crowd of 21,572 fans responded in turn by showing their support for Bickell.
Maybe next year, the biggest cheer at a Bulls playoff game actually will go to a Bulls player.
An exciting regular season gave way to an exasperating playoff series for the Bulls, whose season ended with a 75-69 loss to the Washington Wizards in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The offensively challenged Bulls missed 50 of 75 shots from the field, and disappointed fans filed for the exits rather than stay for the final buzzer.
This was not the ending that anyone had in mind when the playoffs started 10 days ago.
Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich looked despondent as he spoke about his team and his season. Hinrich praised his teammates for fighting hard during a 48-win season in the face of injuries and adversity, but he said an early playoff exit spoiled much of that hard work.
“It’s just bittersweet right now,” said Hinrich, who shook hands with clubhouse workers on his way out of the locker room. “Because we didn’t get the job done.”
Hard work remains, but brighter days are ahead for the Bulls. The Miami Heat can’t own the Eastern Conference forever, and the Bulls are in excellent position this summer to step forward as the main challenger to LeBron James and his aging teammates.
Expect the Bulls’ front office to make a serious run at free-agent Carmelo Anthony, an elite scorer who would fill the team’s biggest need. The New York Knicks will be able to offer Anthony more money, but the Bulls could offer him a chance to chase after a championship.
Other upgrades also could be on the horizon. The Bulls hold the rights to top prospect Nikola Mirotic, a sharp-shooting power forward who has shined for Spain’s Real Madrid. The Bulls also own two first-round picks in one of the deepest NBA drafts in recent memory.
Most importantly, the Bulls will get Derrick Rose back next season. What that means, exactly, remains unclear. After two major knee injuries, it’s fair to speculate that Rose never will be the same player that he was during his MVP season of 2010-11.
On the other hand, Rose is only 25 years old, and medicine is better than ever. And Rose at 80 percent or 90 percent of his previous form is better than most players in the league.
Boozer likely will be gone via the league’s amnesty clause, which will free up money for the Bulls to spend elsewhere. Less clear is whether other complementary players such as waiver-wire pickup D.J. Augustin will return next season to bolster the Bulls’ depth.
“I definitely love it here,” Augustin said before exiting the building for the final time this season. “I definitely would love to be back. But right now, I’m trying to get over this game.”
It wasn’t easy.
Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy wore ice bags around both of his knees after the game, and his bare feet were planted in a bucket of ice water. He looked and sounded drained.
“It just wasn’t enough,” said Dunleavy, who didn’t miss a game all season. “It was a very rewarding season, but a disappointing ending.”
Would changes be in store?
“There always is,” Dunleavy said.
It’s for the better.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.