A season that began with a buzzer beater on Christmas Day in Los Angeles, and included the Bulls posting the league's best record despite daily Derrick Rose injury updates, could end after Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Sixers on Tuesday night at the United Center in a way nobody expected.
The season was supposed to end with a much-anticipated showdown with the Miami Heat. Instead, it will take a Herculean effort for the Bulls to avoid being the fifth top-seeded team since 1984 to be eliminated by an eighth seed in a first-round playoff series when they host Game 5 against the Sixers at the United Center.
Despite what coach Tom Thibodeau says, the Bulls haven't "had enough to win with" during three straight losses. Joakim Noah is recovering from a sprained left ankle he suffered in Game 2. He rode a stationary bike during Tuesday's shootaround at the Berto Center and was shooting free throws after the workout.
If the Bulls can extend this series long enough, it's possible they could get their starting center back at some point.
"I hope so," Kyle Korver said. "I don't know. It was a pretty bad sprain but Jo is a pretty tough guy."
Thibodeau said Noah was "most likely" out Monday. Although he acknowledged that Noah is moving around a lot better, backup Omer Asik will start, barring a miracle.
"We'll see," Thibodeau said. "Maybe he gets better from now until tonight."
If the Bulls are to extend this series, they will need to find a way to generate offense. They've lost their best offensive weapon with Rose out. Although Noah isn't a primary scorer, he does more than most people realize for the Bulls offensively and his value extends beyond his ability to dominate the offensive boards.
The Bulls miss his ability to initiate offense from the high post.
Without Rose penetrating and generating points in the paint as well as wide-open looks for teammates, and without Noah in the high post, and with Andre Iguodala making Luol Deng a non-factor, the Bulls have to rely on their catch-and-shoot game, and Sixers coach Doug Collins has done a solid job of shutting that down by double-teaming Hamilton.
"He has got an unusual skill set," Thibodeau said. "He runs the floor. He play makes. He can shoot, he can post. There's a lot of things he can do. He's a big-time offensive rebounder. That being said, we have more than enough to win with. All of our guys have strengths and weaknesses. We just have to play to our strengths."
The other thing Noah helps the Bulls do has been sorely missing in the first four games of this series.
"Derrick and Jo are two guys who can get the ball and we get out and run," Kyle Korver said. "We're not getting fast-break points, we're not getting into our sets very quickly. We're having to take a lot tougher shots when their defense is set. They have a good defense. They really do. That's where we really miss them. We miss them a lot in our ability to run. We have a deep team, a lot of bodies. One of strengths all year is getting out and running and we haven't been able to do it this series."
Thibodeau has reminded players they have won three straight games 57 times during the past two seasons. That's an important thing for everybody to remember. As injury-depleted as these Bulls might be, winning three in a row against the opportunistic Sixers isn't out of the question.
"We can do it," Korver said. "For sure. We have to play really good basketball, though. We have to play inspired basketball, make the hustle plays and get the crowd into it."