Mercilessly, a Bulls season was over before anybody expected — and long before it should be.
Effort didn't fail the Bulls as much as execution.
Of all the injuries the Bulls endured in a series defined by attrition, nothing exceeded the pain and suffering of watching the 76ers celebrate as confetti fell onto the floor. Nothing could have hurt worse than knowing they lost to a team with less talent and experience. Nothing tortures an athlete more than this question: What might have been?
The Bulls and their fans will ask that often during the longest of summers.
What might have been if Derrick Rose hadn't torn an ACL? What might have been if Joakim Noah hadn't twisted an ankle in Game 3? What might have been if Deng had two good hands or hadn't been hit in the nose hard enough in the first quarter of Game 6 to require stitches and get knocked out of rhythm? What might have been if officials hadn't waved off Gibson's 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left on the shot clock upon review — the correct call — to increase the 76ers' halftime lead from five to eight?
Though tempting, please don't dwell on asking what might have been if officials had swallowed their whistles with 2.2 seconds left instead of calling a foul on Omer Asik as he attempted to block Andre Iguodala's layup. Iguodala hit the two most clutch free throws of the Doug Collins era in Philadelphia, but to blame the end of the season on a bad call would be wrong. Good for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau that he resisted that temptation, albeit reluctantly.
"It looked like Omer had the ball, but I don't want to put it on the officials," Thibodeau said. "We didn't do what we should have done."
This was not the 2012 Bulls' Hue Hollins moment. One referee didn't shorten the Bulls' postseason and allow the 76ers to become only the fifth No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seed in the NBA playoffs.
Start with Asik missing two free throws with 7 seconds left. Go to Watson showing a stunning lack of awareness in passing the ball to Asik, a 46 percent free-throw shooter, with a one-point lead. How about Carlos Boozer disappearing during the biggest game of the season by shooting 1 of 11 and scoring three points?
"I'm disappointed with the loss but not disappointed in our team," Thibodeau said.
He should be. I don't subscribe to the theory the better team won or the Bulls were destined to lose. This isn't the fluky NHL playoffs or the fate-stricken NCAA tournament. This isn't supposed to happen in the NBA, and shouldn't have this year despite injuries to Rose and Noah. The Bulls still were stronger overall. The deeper team looked tired when it mattered most because Thibodeau stuck with the same five for 15 straight minutes during crunch time.
Remember, the Bulls still had more playoff veterans such as Boozer and Rip Hamilton, who finally made an impact in the fourth quarter the way he was signed to do. They still had experience they failed to take advantage of and opportunities galore. They also had the 76ers trying valiantly to lose by blowing a 12-point lead and shooting 37.5 percent.
But the Bulls wouldn't let them and couldn't close after coming painfully close thanks to an unlikely source.
Asik will be remembered most for the missed free throws and the final foul, but before that sequence, he had never impressed more. Because of Noah's injury and Boozer's ineffectiveness, Asik played 39 minutes — and all but 7 seconds of those were quality. When Asik dunked with 25.8 seconds left to give the Bulls a 78-75 lead, I started looking up the Turkish word for hero.
Instead we were left with the latest Chicago sports definition of angst. Where does this first-round exit of the NBA's No. 1 seed rank on a list of the city's biggest end-of-the-year disappointments? The 2004 Cubs? The 1986 Bears? Alas, we now have months to mull that over.
Two years after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup at the same Wells Fargo Center, the Bulls inexcusably let their dream die. This time, in this building, Game 6 did not end happily for Chicago. And the losers had nobody to blame but themselves.