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Basketball Notes

Suddenly, the outlook for Bulls isn’t so rosy

By Gary Washburn
May 29, 2011

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So it seems the Celtics may be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference after all.

The Bulls earned the top seed in the conference and had every intention of shutting down the Heat’s Big Three with their stringent defense and relentless rebounding.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Just as the Heat took advantage of the Celtics’ age and injuries, they exposed Chicago’s lack of a secondary scorer to Derrick Rose, forcing the MVP into rushed shots, including the partially blocked 3-pointer that ended Game 5 and the series.

Rose shot 35 percent in the series, just 17 of 56 (30.4 percent) in the final two games. The Bulls believed they had constructed a title-contending team with the offseason acquisitions of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer, but none of them responded when Rose needed help, and now the Bulls are in a Celtic-like limbo.

Like the Celtics (and most NBA teams), the Bulls struggled to stop LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, especially since James has decided to become Reggie Miller from the 3-point arc. And Tom Thibodeau, the league’s Coach of the Year, had trouble with late-game situations because Rose isn’t yet a closer.

The organization may regret not trading Joakim Noah to Denver for Carmelo Anthony, because it’s tough for a one-star team to win the NBA Finals. The Bulls may essentially be back at Square One because their core — besides Rose — won’t get much better over the summer.

Chicago beat up on bad teams during the regular season, very rarely losing when it should have won. That’s what separated the Bulls from the Heat and Celtics, who took turns tripping over weak opponents and losing winnable games. Perhaps if the Celtics earned the No. 1 seed and faced the Heat with home-court advantage, they would have had a better chance of advancing to the Finals.

But Celtics president Danny Ainge is probably sitting back in his office, convinced his team is better than the Bulls and just a few young pieces away from eclipsing the Heat — at least for next season.

But what is Bulls general manager Gar Forman thinking?

Right now, he has a shaken point guard, a $90 million forward (Boozer) who didn’t play in the fourth quarter of the biggest game of the season, and another cornerstone (Noah) who made more impact with his mouth than his play.

Rose was the only one who took responsibility for the defeat, even as his status as an NBA superstar may have slipped a few notches.

“Experience is a great teacher,’’ Thibodeau said. “He’ll study. He’ll prepare. He’ll get better. I hope our team will get better.

“Sometimes you have to go through things and experience them before you understand how tough and hard . . . all these games were tough, hard-fought games that came down to the end.

“Sometimes you have to will it, and it’s a hustle play here, a hustle play there, and that’s the difference. Sometimes things aren’t going your way and you have to be able to navigate through that stuff. You have to continue to concentrate, you have to play with poise.

“Going down the stretch, there were a lot of things that went against us. But that’s all part of it. And hopefully you learn from that, and the next time around you do better.’’

Thibodeau will get better in the coming years, but he learned the hard way that rookie coaches usually struggle in the kind of playoff situations the regular season does not present. Although Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is learning on the job himself, he was able to draw on the Heat’s late-game failures during the regular season and the much-improved James to close out games. The Bulls were unable to respond.

So this makes the Eastern Conference picture for next season a little blurrier. The Heat will be the prohibitive favorites, while the Bulls should be picked second, but the retooled Celtics suddenly don’t look as decrepit as they did two weeks ago.

The pressure is on Rose to improve, but Forman may have more to do this summer than he expected.

Boozer proved he is not a franchise-caliber forward. He was a second-rate free agent who capitalized on the Bulls’ cap space and desperation for a scorer.

Noah will improve, but he will never be a go-to scorer, and that leaves Rose to lead the team basically as a one-man offensive machine. And that won’t work because the Heat laid out the blueprint on how to defend it.

“I’m going to get better, I’m not worried about that,’’ Rose said. “If anything, this is going to make me hungry.

“Made it this far with this group. My teammates, great teammates. Too bad we couldn’t get to the Finals, but we still got a shot next year.

“I won’t take anything back from this year. It’s been great. The coaching staff has been great. Organization has been great. The management, ownership, everybody has been great. But I think it’s going to make everybody hungry.’’

OKLAHOMA ISN’T OK
Thunder were brought down It seems the Thunder’s ascent to elite status took a detour with their five-game loss to the Mavericks.

A team that apparently was primed to advance to the Finals with the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and a painfully young but talented roster was supposed to run away from the Mavericks.

But chaos ensued because Perkins never quite worked out as the force they expected, often unable to sprint the court on fast breaks and replaced by Nick Collison in the fourth quarters. And then there was the “who’s the man here?’’ beef between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

One thing we have learned during this year’s playoffs is that any weakness will be exposed. The Celtics were old. The Bulls lacked a capable No. 2 scorer. The Lakers were a bunch of fat cats still basking in their two titles. And the Thunder lack a distributing point guard, while Durant can’t consistently create his own shot.

Not only did the Thunder sign Perkins to a four-year extension without seeing him play on questionable knees, but they have to make a decision on a long-term extension for Westbrook, who could be eligible for a five-year, $85 million deal under the about-to-expire collective bargaining agreement.

“I think the pieces are here,’’ said Durant. “We had an opportunity to get there right now. We wanted to kind of relish the moment and do something people didn’t think we could do.

“I feel confident about us moving forward as a group. We definitely want to prove people wrong.’’

Durant is a tireless worker, but his slight frame became a detriment during the postseason. He wasn’t able to post up shorter, stronger defenders, and his mid-range game suffered as a result.

“I could get stronger and go from there,’’ he said. “I realize I’m not going to be 250 and cut up, but I could get stronger. I have a lot to work on, and it might sound crazy, but I’m ready to get to work now.’’

General manager Sam Presti has to consider whether Perkins is the team’s center of the future. And it is beginning to look as though Danny Ainge got the better of that controversial February trade that sent Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. Green is likely to return as a restricted free agent, and the Celtics are interested in re-signing Krstic.

Perkins averaged 2 fewer points and shot 11 percent lower in the playoffs than his career numbers. And some believe he wasn’t as active defensively because of those knees. Robinson, meanwhile, was only a bit player and has one year left on that two-year contract he signed with the Celtics.

The Thunder, like the Celtics, have a lot of issues to work through, and not even youth can expedite the process.

WHAT IN BLAZES?
More turmoil for Portland Well, the Blazers are once again looking for a general manager after the brief but moderately successful tenure of Rich Cho ended with his firing last week. Cho, the first Asian-American general manager in major US sports, was let go by owner Paul Allen suddenly after the predraft combine for reasons that remain blurry.

Cho is a behind-the-scenes man by nature, and his low profile apparently bothered Allen, who is rather low-key himself. But Cho’s firing also was coincidental with him admitting that he considered suspending guard Brandon Roy for complaining about playing time after Game 2 of the first-round series against Dallas.

It probably wasn’t the best timing for Cho to say that, but his work had been commendable during his 10-month tenure. He acquired Gerald Wallace to help Portland’s often ailing or inexperienced crew. He signed Wesley Matthews away from the Jazz, talked Rudy Fernandez out of heading back to Spain, and stabilized the roster despite myriad injuries.

But team president Larry Miller said there were chemistry issues in management, which always seems to be the case with Allen, who is credited with saving Blazers basketball in Portland by helping with the construction of the Rose Garden and nabbing coach Nate McMillan away from the rival Sonics.

Yet the Blazers will be seeking their third GM in a year. Kevin Pritchard was fired just before the 2010 draft, though he asked to work it. Cho never got a chance to draft players or make decisions on free agents Greg Oden and Andre Miller.

When contacted by the Globe, Cho politely said he wasn’t ready to comment, but reports say he was shocked by the move. It could be difficult for the organization to attract a capable veteran GM because of its recent track record, and that could mean even more upheaval for a franchise that’s endured enough over the past few years.

HOPE IN SACRAMENTO
Kings may yet get their castle It looks as if the city of Sacramento and Mayor Kevin Johnson are living up to their word and getting contributors for a new sports complex in the state capital. The city has one season to demonstrate to the NBA and the Kings owners, the Maloof family, that it will construct a state-of-the-art facility to replace Arco Arena.

The Maloofs appear cautiously optimistic (they have little choice) after their bid to move the team to Anaheim was met tepidly by the league. Johnson, a former All-Star player and a Sacramento native, promised local financial support if the league allowed a window.

A new collective bargaining agreement could aid smaller-market franchises such as the Kings, and commissioner David Stern, who is reluctant to relocate another franchise, appears encouraged by Sacramento’s desire to stay in the game.

“Like the Maloofs, we want to make this new entertainment and sports complex happen,’’ said Stern. “The focus now is moving forward in developing a public-private partnership financing model that will bring a new arena to fruition. That is priority No. 1 in Sacramento for all of us.’’

While Sacramento is working to retain its franchise, Washington state officials are looking into a task force to explore the possibility of bringing an NBA team back.

ETC.
Keeping pace with coaches The longer the Pacers wait to hire a coach, the more likely it is that they will retain Frank Vogel and remove the interim tag. Vogel interviewed with Houston but was never a serious candidate there. While the Rockets have interviewed nearly everybody except Craig Biggio for their job, the Pacers have conducted a low-key search. Team president Larry Bird said Vogel would be given every chance to return but that he wanted to interview other candidates. There isn’t a strong pool this offseason; perhaps the best, Mike Brown, was nabbed by the Lakers. Kevin McHale, meanwhile, met with Rockets owner Leslie Alexander and appears to be the No. 1 candidate, over Dallas assistant Dwane Casey. The twist here is that McHale hired and fired Casey in Minnesota in 2006. Casey has interviewed for the Sonics, Bulls, and Clippers jobs and been passed up each time.

Layups At a time when NBA players often aren’t credited enough for their charitable efforts, Timberwolves center Darko Milicic is auctioning off his 2004 NBA championship ring (won with Detroit) and a trip to the 2011 Finals to raise money for his foundation, which aids children with life-threatening diseases. Milicic was a bit player on that title team and has received much scrutiny for being drafted ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, but this is something that should quiet his critics . . . Apparently, the Celtics traded Semih Erden to Cleveland because they felt he would return to Europe anyway out of homesickness. The Cavaliers have yet to see what they have in Erden because of shoulder and groin surgeries and a lack of conditioning. The Celtics relayed to Cleveland that Erden needed shoulder surgery, but the groin issue is new. Erden played in just four games after being acquired from the Celtics Feb. 24.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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