Basketball / Sports

Despite ouster, coach Tom Thibodeau proud of way Bulls battled all season

CHICAGO -- Tuesday night didn't merely mark the end of a season. It marked the end of an era.

The Wizards eliminated the Bulls from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in five games with a 75-69 victory, placing a period on another overachieving regular season and underwhelming finish.

The summer of 2014 always pointed to change, a process Derrick Rose's second straight season-ending knee injury and the subsequent trade of Luol Deng accelerated. And so the team that trudged off the United Center court won't be the same that arrives at October's training camp.

Only offensive-minded applicants need apply.

The Bulls capped an offensive season -- pun accepted -- in which they ranked as the lowest-scoring and worst-shooting regular-season team with, fittingly, a season-low for points. They shot 33.3 percent. They endured a first-half stretch of 1-for-15 and a second-half stint of 1-for-10 and failed to break 15 points in the first and third quarters.

And they added injury to insult, losing Taj Gibson to a sprained left ankle in the fourth quarter and playing Joakim Noah as he limped his way through a left knee injury that sources said required fluid to be drained from it recently.

In that regard, Noah, who impressively gritted his teeth through six points, seven assists and 18 rebounds, epitomized this season. The Bulls fought and fought, overcoming odds and adversity but ultimately finished short.

"I'm proud of the team," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "They gave us everything they had. There was nothing left. That's all you can ask for as a coach."

Gibson, who finished his breakout season with 12 points and four rebounds, badly rolled his ankle when he landed on John Wall's foot. His pain only intensified as he watched the Wizards grab five offensive rebounds down the stretch.

"We had a hard season and put in a lot of effort," Gibson said. "And you want to get rewarded when you put in a lot of effort. It's real disappointing. We put so much work into this season and came out of countless holes. I'm pissed."

Nene returned from his one-game absence to take advantage of Noah's immobility, dropping repeated mid-range jumpers en route to 20 points.

"My knee's bothering me," Noah said. "I'm not sure what it is. I was limited. But it's no excuses. Now we have a lot of time to take care of it."

Wall led the Wizards, who won all three road games in the series, with 24 points.

Despite all the offensive woes, the Bulls pulled into a one-possession game when D.J. Augustin, who shot 1-for-10, sank two free throws with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left. Facing the same deficit, Jimmy Butler missed a lefty layup off a pretty inbounds pass from Kirk Hinrich with 18.8 seconds left, one of several point-blank chances blown.

Hinrich fouled out, but Andre Miller missed both free throws with 16.2 seconds left. Nene back-tapped the second miss and Bradley Beal split two free throws, with Nene rebounding the miss again, allowing Wall to seal it with two more free throws.

The Wizards enjoyed a 49-43 rebounding edge.

"We were 12-19 and we didn't make any excuses," said Thibodeau, who received a postgame consolation visit from Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and President Michael Reinsdorf. "I think a lot of other people would have just laid down. And our team didn't do that.

"The fight was there. The spirit was there. The togetherness of the team was there throughout the year."

And so it ends, this season that began with championship aspirations.

It featured all the twists and turns of a good novel -- the excitement of Rose's return followed by the devastation of his torn meniscus in Portland, Ore.; the financial-based trade of Deng to the Cavaliers; Noah's second straight All-Star berth; Gibson's breakthrough to another level; Mike Dunleavy's subtle contributions; Carlos Boozer's likely goodbye; Butler's ironman efforts; Hinrich's grittiness and Augustin's resuscitation.

"Through all the adversity, we never gave up," Noah said. "And that's something I'm proud of. We didn't lose for lack of effort, that's for sure."

Changes are coming. Until then, the memories remain.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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BULLS


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