Thank God April has finally ended in Chicago

April mercifully comes to an end for Chicago sports fans, and not a minute too soon. It’s not healthy to suck down that level of disappointment in such a short time, and now we can thankfully move on to the May hangover.

Okay, right, I know. This is the point where I have to acknowledge that Chicago is not a success-starved city. We’re still early in the victory lap season for the Cubbies, and we’ve had a steady diet of success in recent years (Cubs and Blackhawks), as well as sustained for the last 35 years from all of the Chicago teams.

This article is not a comparison of our teams’ misery versus others. Cleveland, we know the Indians haven’t won a Series in over 50 years, and Browns have never even been to the Super Bowl. Buffalo, we respect your miserable history of near misses and playoff melt-downs with the Bills and Sabres. Phoenix — with all four pro sports teams — has one championship . . . ever? Wow, that’s pretty bad.

Guess what? This article isn’t for you. If you’d like a recap of how historically bad your teams have been, please visit the appropriate Sports-Reference page.

Chicago fans don’t sit around saying, “the Blackhawks just got swept, but at least we’re better than the Coyotes!” Our misery is self-contained and self-loathing. April was simply a brutal month for Chicago. In addition to the 1-seeded Hawks getting swept aside like a pile of dirt, the Bulls sucked us back in, only to flame out in spectacular fashion. Oh yeah, and someone from the Bears drafted some people.

Blackhawks Swept

Let’s start with the Blackhawks. Nine straight trips to the playoffs with five Conference finals appearances and three Cup wins is pretty amazing. Part of the joy of this Bowman-Quenneville era has been the respect the franchise has earned. They are essentially hockey’s version of the Spurs and Patriots, or perhaps a notch below.

Last year’s first round exit didn’t really sting. While it’s never fun to lose, it was a very exciting series, and Chicago stood a double-crossbar miss away from sending Game 7 to overtime, where anything could happen. The ’15-’16 Blackhawks weren’t dominate. With injuries and other distractions, it felt like a middle-of-the-pack year. Considering they had ripped off three straight conference finals with two Stanley Cups, and Kane snagged the first Chicago Hart Trophy since the Hull-Mikita dynasty, we could sleep easy knowing we slugged it out with a good St. Louis team, but 2016 wasn’t our year.

Chicago Sun-Times

2017 on the other hand? That should have been. This is the kind of year that the Spurs, Patriots and (hate to say it) Cardinals put together. The business-like comeback from a dramatic series loss the year before. This ’16-’17 Blackhawks didn’t look like a juggernaut. The defensive core is aging and Captain Toews has been . . . off.

No matter. The team played well the first half of the season, looking like the well-coached and experienced crew they should be. They don’t have the depth of their previous Cup runs, but hey, we’re the NHL Patriots! It doesn’t matter. Sitting at a solid 30–17–5 record, the Hawks put is all together, ripping off 17 wins in their next 20 games to get to 47–20–5, and looking like the best team in hockey.

Maybe they peaked a little too early. It’s dangerous to put cruise control on even if they had the top spot in the West locked up. Still, they were playing a Predators team that they beat four of five times in the regular season, and both times in the playoffs during the Quenneville era. Playoff time = Blackhawk time. They’re toast.

Except, that’s not what happened. The Game 1 loss wasn’t cause for concern. Chicago has been behind in so many series during the Cup runs, it’s practically a pre-requisite. Hell, they even lost Game 1 and two of the first three against Nashville in the 2010 playoffs. No sweat.

Then Game 2 happened. Even before the Predators notched their first goal, they looked like the dominate team. As they racked up a 2–0 and then 3–0 lead in the game, I was literally thinking, “I hope they score just get their confidence up. They need to break the seal.” Nope. In fact Nashville tacked on two more after the game was out of hand, and it was unclear who was the 1-seed and who snuck into the final playoff spot.

A “better effort” in Game 3 slightly masked what was an all-time bed shitting. Hockey is not Basketball. One-seeds lose in the first round. But not like this. At least when the 2012 Bulls exited in the first round as a one-seed, they could point to the Rose injury, and the team still played four more close games as they lost in six.

The stink of this embarrassment will last for a long time. It will be one of those uniquely bad experiences that’s brought up any time a future top seed struggles. Even worse, it will be lodged in the back of their mind the next playoff appearance.

The Blackhawks’ meltdown was brutal because this was a title-contender, if not favorite for many. The only thing giving us solace was the overachieving Bulls . . .

Celtics complete back-end sweep of Bulls

Few Chicago fans had high hopes for this Bulls team. As the NBA has unquestionably moved into an era of threes-and-free-throws, the Bulls entered the ’16-’17 season with a team devoid of long-range gunners. Building your team around the odd pairing of Butler, Rondo, and Wade seemed peculiar even as it was happening, but failing to surround them with guys who compliment their weaknesses (they’re all marginal at the shooting threes) was a mistake.

Of course, the obvious response would be “what about McDermott?” Unfortunately, McDermott has not adapted his game to the pro’s, and nobody (Hoiberg?!?) has coached him to playing the role, before eventually dumping him off to another team.

With very tempered expectations and entering the year with a bizarre composition of players, the Bulls on the court performed, well, as expected. The Bulls mixed in home losses to the Lakers and Timberwolves with impressive wins against the fully-strength Cavaliers and Spurs. They’d win 4 out of 5, then lose 4 out of 5. Sitting at 26–29, most Bulls’ fans felt the same way they did at the beginning of the year — what a weird frickin’ team.

However, following their most impressive stretch — 5 wins in 6 games including victories over the Raptors, Celtics, Cavaliers and Warriors — most Chicago fans were fully sucked back in. They were in the playoffs with a reasonable chance to creep up to the 5 seed, and no one would want to face them in the playoffs! In typical Bulls fashion, they dropped 7 of their next 8. They sat 5 games under .500 and well out of a playoff spot with three weeks left in the season.

The narrative changed. Now, Bulls fans swung back to the feeling that this strange collection of talent was destined to fail. Many fans hoped for the worst. If the team needs to be blown up anyway, why not lose out and get a lottery pick?

It’s one thing to hope for a high lottery pick. It’s another to root against your team in an actual game. As the Bulls rattled off victories over playoff teams in Milwaukee, and at home against Chicago and Atlanta, the tractor beam turned back on. By the final day of the season — and with a lottery pick devoid of value at 40–42 — Chicago fans were (almost) completely back. The game 82 win was the first and only “important” win of Hoiberg’s short career at the helm, but they had snuck in.

The Bulls finished the year 28th out of 30 in three-pointers made. Their 623 triples just barely edged out the Splash Brother (592). Their 34.0% 3-point percentage the worst of any playoff team not led by an alien cyborg sent to destroy the planet. Guess who lead the team in 3P% (hover). Rondo. Yes, that Rondo. With a career high 37.6%. Somehow, they finished with a Top-6 defensive efficiency, but the eye-test told a much different story. The Bulls were wildly inconsistent on D, playing tremendously well one night followed by garbage the next. Even within games, it was not uncommon to see the team collapse defensively in the fourth quarter after looking sharp the first three.

Heading into the playoff battle with Boston, Bulls fans were in the same mixed mindset they had been all year. Unsure, cautiously optimistic. No Chicago fan uttered the words “I love this team” and certainly not “I love this coach.” Was this the team that Golden State, San Antonio, Utah, Oklahoma City, Portland, Memphis, and went 8–3 against the top three seeds in the East? Or the team that was swept by the Mavericks, Timberwolves, and Knicks?

Then Game One happened. Butler looked like the best player on the court. Rondo does play big in big games. Bobby Portis?!? Chicago fans have years’ worth of walls built up to not get giddy about one good game. Game Two broke down the wall Reagan-style. The Bulls dominated. Vintage Rondo posting up 11 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds and 5 steals. Butler and Wade putting up 22 in very unselfish team efforts. Strong outings by Lopez and Mirotic. Paul Zipser?!?

On top of the individual performances, the team looked different. The speed and flow. The confidence on defense. OHMYGOD THE BULLS ARE PLAYING THEIR BEST IN THE PLAYOFFS. Suck it, Thibodeau! (I’m sorry Thibodeau I didn’t mean that).

In the brief period between the end of game two and the end of the Bulls season (a.k.a. Rondo’s thumb). Chicago fans fully completed the transformation from disgusted/disappointed/indifferent to WE BELIEVE. Winning one of two in Chicago would almost certainly seal the series, and put a Chicago team on the other side of a 1–8 upset.

Anything other than two dominating performances in Games One and Two, and Bulls fans could have quietly stomached the Round One beat-down we all expected. If Sacramento Rondo showed up, we would all be fine. Instead we got Boston Rondo just long enough to get our hopes up . . . and then rip our hearts out.

scoopnest.com

We all knew the series was over once we saw the Rondo-less Bulls return to their mediocre ways in Game 3, but clung to hope anyway. Three straight limp-wristed efforts in Games 3, 4 and 5 all felt inevitable. The final poke in the eye came in an utterly pathetic Game 6. Down double-digits at the half, Hoiberg’s halftime adjustments and motivational techniques resulted in a 13 point deficit ballooning to 30 in just ten minutes. Although Butler played well over the final four games and in the first half of Game 6, his performance felt very Paul George-ian, in a series where he had the chance to separate himself from his “upper-middle class” peer.

This bizarre Bulls season ended as it started — a mess. A team that managed to alternatively overachieve and underachieve all year capped it with the same. The Game 6 quitfest would have been bad enough . . . and then Mitchell showed up.

With the Second Pick?!?, The Bears Draft Mitch Trubisky

At a dinner with friends, we were planning to casually keep up with the draft via ESPN and CBS phone apps. The group’s rooting interests crossed multiple teams, and we were naturally giving each other a hard time leading up to the first pick. One of the non-Bear fans at the table unofficially designated themselves as the commentator, and he had the live broadcast up on this phone. As we ordered our second round of drinks, he has a funny look on his face.

“I thought the Bears were picking third?” he says.

“They are,” I replied nervously.

“It says they are on the clock with the second pick.”

At this point, my mind was racing. What’s happening? Did the 49ers forget to draft? Has Gase secretly coveted Solomon Thomas all along? Nothing made sense.

Another non-Bears fan chimed in, “they’re probably moving up to get a Quarterback.”

“Ha! Don’t be stupid, these quarterbacks all suck,” I replied.

Our commentator’s facial expression slowly changed from confusion to a wide, you’re-going-to-hate-this grin.

“I think he’s right. They’re showing Mitch Trubisky highlights.”

My heart sank. Without knowing any details of the draft picks involved with the swap, I already felt the dread. We had just made the pick of the 2017 draft — the one everyone would talk about — and . . . it was terrible. At least we aren’t paying Tom Brady-money to a Giant Ginger this year. Oh, wait . . .

Plenty has been said about the foolishness of the selection and the cache picks to make the move, so I won’t repeat what is universally panned, other than to say that the Bears helped John Lynch earn Executive of the Year just three months into the job.

It was hard to have any level of optimism going into Day 2. By the time the Bears’ 36th overall pick rolled around, the can’t-miss prospects were completely gone. You know, all the ones they could have selected with the THIRD PICK IN THE DRAFT. Gase wisely traded down to a spot later in the second round (45th overall), recouping much of what he had hemorrhaged the day before. Okay, Adam. Maybe we’ll be okay.

And what did we do with this 45th pick? We selected the FIFTH Tight End in the draft. From a non-FBS program. Over the last ten years, the fifth tight end has never gone before the third round, and usually lands in the middle of the fourth. Maybe this is the Year of the Tight End. Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce were both the fifth TE in their respective draft so maybe there is hope.

Okay. I’m a Bears fan. I’ve got to start talking myself into this. We have the “best” Quarterback in the draft, and the second-best Non-FBS Tight End (where the hell is Ashland? Doesn’t matter). We can do this . . .

In the third round, the Bears select . . . nobody, they traded that away for Trubisky. Shit.

Okay, we’re into Day 3 and the fourth round. Let’s quickly make a list of positions where we are, you know, pretty well set:

1. Guard (i.e. whichever position Kyle Long plays this year)

2. Running Back

3. Linebacker

Everything else is various shades of shaky.

The Bears had two fourth-round picks thanks to the maneuvering, and selected Alabama safety Eddie Jackson. ESPN had Jackson slated as a 5th round pick, while CBS graded the pick as a C+. In other words, clearly the best Bears’ pick of the first four rounds.

With their other fourth-rounder, Gase opted for Tarik Cohen. A running back. Rated as the 246th best player in the draft. With the 119th Pick.

Fun Fact: not counting compensatory picks, a standard draft has 224 picks. This year, there were 253 total picks counting all the comp-picks.

In review . . . with the third overall draft position . . . we pulled in:

- Our new back-up Quarterback/cross-your-fingers-that-he-pans-out future starter

- Our new back-up Tight End

- Our new third (or fourth) Running Back/Returner

- A Safety who we only reached one round too early for

Please, let this month end.

Irrational Optimist

I enjoy sports way too much. And I let the losses bother me way too much. Let’s review April’s carnage.

Nashville took a 2–0 lead over Western Conference One-Seed Blachawks on April 15th, dominating Game 2 by five goals. Rondo broke his thumb on April 18th. The Hawks were finished off in four pathetic games by April 20th. Gase traded 19 picks for an Osweileresque talent on April 27th. The Bulls lost their decisive Game 6 in just 36 minutes on April 28th. If this were a boxing match, the second half of April was two hard jabs, a right cross, and an uppercut to chin.

As we pull ourselves off the mat, we’ve got to try to look at the positives. If the Blackhawks really are hockey’s Spurs and Patriots, they can rebound. The 2011 Spurs won 61 games, but were bounced in the first round by the Grizzlies, only to head to three straight conference finals and a fifth title. The 2010 Patriots went 14–2 only to lose at home to the Mark Sanchez-led Jets. They seem to have turned it around okay.

Maybe this bizarro Bulls season will actually give clarity to what they need to do moving forward. Butler clearly can’t carry the team alone. Could Chicago add a piece, see a leap from one of the promising younger guys, and ask Wade to spearhead a second squad as he offered to do?

Maybe Mr. Mitchell Trubisky is the next Peyton Manning, and we’ll all laugh at how we scoffed at the pick, like the Pacers booing Reggie Miller. Maybe — what’s his name? — Adam Shaheen is the next Gronk. Maybe, um, Tarik Cohen will be . . . uh . . . oh, screw it. Wake me up when May is here.