From now on, whenever someone wants to dispute the connection between confidence and winning in pro sports, I will offer the example of the 2012 Bulls, suddenly reduced to slumped shoulders and brittle spines.
Monday at the Berto Center convinced me the only place the Bulls truly believe they are going anytime soon is on vacation. It could begin as early as Tuesday night or as late as the weekend, but the vibe suggested it definitely will start soon and beating the heat will take on new meaning for Bulls players.
In the past 10 emotional days, the Bulls have lost their MVP, their emotional leader, Joakim Noah, and dealt publicly with a heart condition team Vice President John Paxson hoped to keep private before Collins sent well-wishes from the podium. Not coincidentally in that stretch, the Bulls also lost three straight games to a lesser team, their focus, identity and anything resembling a swagger.
Physically, even without Rose or Noah I still find no acceptable excuse for the Bulls to lose to a 76ers team that failed to shoot 40 percent in its last two wins. Alas, mentally, there are no signs of the Bulls recovering. An air of inevitability looms.
Turns out in the playoffs, the NBA's deepest regular-season team has a much shallower reservoir of resolve than anybody suspected. The Bulls have met their urgency with anxiety. They have frittered away fourth-quarter leads and let the 76ers assume the role of aggressor as they meekly played down to their level of competition. The Bench Mob has been exposed as a Bench Myth.
I asked coach Tom Thibodeau about the role of mental fatigue because veterans Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton complemented by Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson — despite reprising the Caleb Hanie role — still give the Bulls a physical edge.
"Hopefully you've been building right habits through the season to get through something like this," Thibodeau said. "Every team in the playoffs is going through the same thing."
Sorry, Thibs, I doubt every team in the playoffs has experienced its definition of worst-case scenario. But we get the gist. We know Thibodeau, at least, thinks the Bulls still have enough to win because he keeps repeating it. Nothing else about Thibodeau in this series has been as consistent as his answer to that question — and that's part of the Bulls' problem too.
Players have been disoriented enough to have to worry about an inconsistent rotation. We still don't really know why Thibodeau chose Game 3 not to play Ronnie Brewer for the first time all season. Anybody seen Mike James? And if you wonder why Hamilton — acquired specifically for the playoffs — played just 27 seconds in the fourth quarter Sunday, Hamilton's diplomatic dodge suggested that he can relate.
From one end of the bench to the other, the Bulls seem so directionless that the most perceptive among them spoke candidly about the void.
"You put so much into a season and you develop a record and a mindset, the goals that we did, it's easy to feel all is lost," Korver said. "That's the hardest part of all this."
It only will get harder for the Bulls to accept if they go down without a fight that defined them for 66 games — heck, for the past two years. How did a team's greatest strength — its intestinal fortitude — so quickly become such a great weakness?
I don't know whether to consider it good or bad coaching that Korver parroted Thibodeau in revealing what the Bulls miss most lately had more to do with effort than ability.
Thibodeau: "Use our determination, motivation. Find a way to get to those loose balls to get the offensive boards and make a hustle play that unites and inspires a team. Oftentimes that's the difference."
Korver: "We have to think about making inspiring basketball plays; getting that offensive rebound, diving on the floor for loose balls. We're not going to win games with just talent anymore. We have to win it with inspiring basketball. We have to have more heart. Heart and character is what we built this team on."
Professional athletes hate nothing more than having their heart and character questioned. Yet inexplicably down 3-1 to an inferior 76ers team, nothing about the Bulls has deserved more scrutiny in Chicago.
We soon will find out how much it bothers them.