The Bulls and the Blackhawks both had high hopes heading into each of their respective postseasons. For the Blackhawks, they avoided a first round match-up with the Colorado Avalanche thanks to a 6 game losing streak by the St. Louis Blues, who fell from the top seed in the Western Conference down to the 4th seed, setting up a first round date with the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks won their final two regular season games over the Blues, leading many experts and analysts (along with casual and hardcore fans alike) to pick the Blackhawks to win the series. For the Bulls, they failed to attain the 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, a ray of light shined through the clouds as the Indiana Pacers managed to stave off the Miami Heat and keep the 1 seed. To add a little icing on the cake, the Brooklyn Nets seemingly tanked their final two games to set up a second round date with the Miami Heat, a team they swept in the regular season (or to avoid the Bulls in the first round, depending on who you ask and how you look at it). Many people thought that Washington's playoff inexperience would lead to the Bulls winning the series, leading them to take on the struggling Indiana Pacers in the second round.
Fast forward to before Game 1 for the Blackhawks. Ken Hitchcock, the head coach of the St. Louis Blues, put it best when he said this of their first round match-up against the Blackhawks:
"I don’t think either team anticipated this and I don’t think either team really loves playing each other, which should make for a hell of a series. … To me, it’s a new season.”
With the Blues ailing and seemingly taking a turn for the worst, many thought that the Blackhawks would steal at least one (if not both) game in St. Louis. Two games, four overtime periods, and two blown late third period leads later, and the Blackhawks found themselves down 2-0 in the series against their Central Division rivals. After Corey Crawford gave up a game-winner (in which he was screened on) at the end of Game 2, he started tossing his equipment around the locker room, furious with himself for letting the puck go between his legs.
"I had my pads together, but there was a little space there and it just kind of squeezed through... It's frustrating, but whatever. I'm not going to cry about it. We've just got to work harder."
Demoralized and down in the dumps, the Blackhawks were now on the receiving end of a hefty losing streak dating back to the regular season. Corey Crawford, the goalie who had allowed four goals in each of the first two games, had this to say about his performance during the series.
"I obviously have to find a way to make that save, and our guys need me to make a save at the end, too. Really frustrating being up and losing the lead two games in a row in the last couple minutes. That’s pretty much not acceptable. We’re not going to win if I’m going to play like that. Just got to be better... [Got to] Get some rest, try to forget about that, try not to be frustrated about that. That first shift of the next game is the most important thing right now.”
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville didn't hesitate to make changes to his lineup and call out the players who he thought weren't performing well. When Quenneville was asked about Crawford's self-evaluation after Game 2, he had this to say:
"He said he needs to be better, and he needs to be better."
During the morning skate before Game 3, Quenneville had his guys skating with the same lines they normally had, which saw Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell on the 3rd line. Change was seen, however, at the beginning of Game 3, when Kane and Bickell unexpectedly join the likes of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Sheldon Brookbank (filling in for the freshly suspended Brent Seabrook) on the 1st line, going up against Hitchcock and the Blues' 1st line, spearheaded by Steen (who was filling in for the injured David Backes). That shift of the 1st line was something that Hitchcock couldn't solve, as he had not prepared for that line, nor the other lines that saw shifts due to the flux. The Blackhawks went on to win Game 3 by shutting out the Blues 2-0. Game 4 was anything but a shutout. The Blackhawks, however, persevered, and found a way to grind out a win in OT. The Blackhawks, who were at one point up 2-0, found themselves down 3-2 in the 3rd period (on a night where the Ducks squandered a 2-0 to the Stars and lost 4-2 and where the Penguins squandered a 3-0 to the Blue Jackets and lost 4-3 in OT). Andrew Shaw had already scored from right in front of Miller's face, and that stuck with Bickell. After Shaw scored that goal, Bickell attacked the front of the net, knocking Blues' forwards out of the way while screening Miller in the process. His aggressiveness paid off when he notched the game tying goal. Patrick Kane went on to score the game-winner in OT, his 2nd goal of the night, evening the series at 2.
Now, we come to the Bulls. Similar expectations about the Blackhawks were had for the Bulls before the playoffs began. "If we can just get past the first round, who knows what will happen?" However, the Bulls have seemingly been exposed by the Wizards, much like the Blackhawks were exposed by the Blues. The Bulls like to force their opponents into taking the statistically worse shot in basketball: the mid-range shot. Their opponents attempt to avoid this by penetration and strong ball movement. Like a giant game of chess, however, the Bulls counter, preferably rotating their entire defense strong side. They hustle their way to close-outs on three-point shots, and they use their impressive length to dart in and out of passing lanes. The Bulls possess the best defense against the isolation play, a play that the young Wizards sometimes run. All of these combinations seemed to heavily stack the deck in Chicago's favor, but there was one thing that people fail to realize.
How do you beat the Bulls defense? In fact, how do you beat any good defense? The Wizards as a whole have been one of the best shooting teams in the league since the All-Star break. We've heard the name John Wall beaten like a drum since then, but you can't beat the Bulls with just one shooter (and if you could, Wall would not be that guy). A team needs a malady of shooters, and that's what the Wizards have. Besides Wall, you have guys like Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, and Martell Webster who are all deadly with an inch of room beyond the arc. You have your big men like Marcin Gortat, Nene, and Trevor Booker who have the ability to shoot from mid-range. The Bulls defense is doing what they should be doing and what they pride themselves on. The fact of the matter is that the Wizards have met that challenge and are beating it now, hitting 44% from mid-range and 42% from beyond the arc.
The Bulls now find themselves in a 2-0 series hole, shocking many reporters and fans alike. The Bulls' current situation is similar to what the Blackhawks were going through after their first two games. The Bulls, like the Blackhawks, lost their first two games (when they were expected to win at least one of them if not both). The Bulls, like the Blackhawks, blew leads late in the game due to defensive let-downs and lack of offensive output. The Bulls, like the Blackhawks, now face questions about their strategy and rotation. Thibodeau, unlike Quenneville, scoffed at the idea that he should change his rotation or consider changing his strategy. When the media again inquired about Carlos Boozer's minutes, Thibodeau let his frustration get the best of him.
"The group that's in there, Taj is playing well. Whenever you say put someone else in, you're taking someone else out. Who you taking out? Joakim? Who you taking out? Taj? Everyone has a job to do. Just do your job."
Unfortunately, Thibodeau and the Bulls have to make a change. As Nick Friedell pointed out, the Wizards have exposed the flaws that the Bulls have tried so hard to hide. The Bulls lack the scoring needed to go far in the playoffs. However, this series is not lost for the Bulls, just like the Blackhawks series was not lost for them after their first two games. While the Bulls have to go win two out of the remaining three games in Washington, and the Blackhawks only need to win one of the remaining two games in St. Louis, their situations are similar, and the Bulls need to look to the Blackhawks for a lesson or two in [improbable and unlikely] comebacks. At the end of practice on Wednesday, Thibodeau offered a simple solution to the ailments of the Bulls:
"We've got to make our shots. We looked at our shots. I thought our screening was good. It's a make or miss league. If you're open, take your shot. When D.J. is pulling up for an open 3 and he misses, those are the shots he has made all year. You're not going to say, 'D.J., don't shoot that.' He has made that all year. Kirk comes off a double screen on the weak side wide open. He has made that shot all year. He has been a big shot-maker from 3 all year in the 4th quarter. They have their shots, I want them taking them. No hesitation. Shoot the ball."
While offense is a big problem for the Bulls, shooting won't be enough to cure the Bulls. The Bulls lineup has now become predictable, and the Wizards have found a neutralizer for D.J. Augustin: Trevor Ariza. When Augustin is neutralized at the end of the game, like he was in Game 2, the Bulls simply lack the offensive firepower to compete. You know what you're going to get out of Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, likely Sixth Man of the Year Taj Gibson, and Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah on the defensive end. However, the offensive output will likely be lacking if Augustin is neutralized. While Thibodeau will never admit it, this is where Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer would useful in late-game situations. Quenneville unexpected changed up his lines and his formations, and that lead the Blackhawks to winning their next two games and evening up the series at two games a piece. An offensive infusion would provide a spark that could turn the series back around into Chicago's favor. Quenneville made the necessary adjustments to get his team back in the series. Now, it's Thibodeau's turn.
REMINDER: The Bulls tip-off at 7:00 pm CST on ESPN. The Blackhawks' puck drop is at 7:00 pm CST on NBCSN or CSN Chicago.