A Nets fan friend of mine asked if I wanted to go to Game 5 of Nets-Bulls at Barclays Center. I was hesitant — the price was decent by playoff standards but still pricey by normal Monday night activity standards, and I knew I could only root for the Bulls if I went. But I had fallen so hard for this Chicago team throughout the series, particularly in that legendary Game 4, that I decided to give it a go anyway, to root them on as they hopefully closed out the Nets on the road. Then on Monday afternoon, four or five hours before the game, I saw something that instantly made me regret that decision: Kirk Hinrich was out for the game with a calf bruise, and I knew that the Bulls would lose.
Derrick Rose is obviously the best player on the Bulls, but Kirk Hinrich is clearly the Truest Bull. Actually, that’s not true at all. Hinrich’s up there, but equal claims could be made for Truest Bull status by Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, even Rose himself when healthy. (This is a pretty true Bulls team.) Nonetheless, there’s something undeniably Bullsian about Hinrich’s hard-nosed, defensive-minded, solid-but-unspectacular style of play. He always seems to know the right play to make for this team, even if he’s not quite capable of making it some of the time. He’s about as good a single-player encapsulation of the 2012-13 Bulls as you could ask for.
Captain Kirk seems so natural an on-court extension of the Tom Thibodeau ethos that it’s absolutely crazy to think that this is actually his first season playing for Thibs, since it already seems like he’s been doing so his whole career. What’s more, a couple months into his second stint with the Bulls — he initially served from 2003 to 2010, before his contract was jettisoned to Washington to help clear cap space for what they hoped would be LeBron James or Dwyane Wade and ended up being Carlos Boozer, Hinrich was then re-routed to Atlanta to take the reins from a decrepit Mike Bibby — and you completely forgot the two seasons he spent apart from the team. It’s natural he’s back in Chicago. It’s right. Can you even imagine what he even looked like in a Wizards uniform?
Like few other players in this league, Kirk’s value to the Bulls is one that can’t be captured in numbers. Or at least, Kirk better hope for his sake that his value can’t be captured in numbers, because the numbers say he’s pretty damn un-valuable. He shot 39 percent from deep, which is pretty OK, and he only turned the ball over 1.7 times a game, which is nice for a point guard. But he also shot an exceedingly poor 33 percent from 16 feet to 3-point range, and an unthinkably low 25 percent from three to 10 feet. He hasn’t averaged double-digits in points for a season since 2010, he hasn’t attempted more than two free throws a game since 2007. His PER this season was a barely-Mendoza-Line-clearing 10.9.
There’s only one real statistical category to measure Hinrich’s value: Wins and losses. A cliche, perhaps, but in Kirk’s case, it happens to be true. You might have heard the numbers before, but they’re worth repeating: The Bulls were 38-22 with the Captain in the lineup this regular season, and 7-15 without him. A large part of that is the fact that without Hinrich, Nate Robinson is forced to play starter’s minutes, and even worse, Marquis Teague fills as the backup (or Marco Belinelli slides over to makeshift point), none of which any team could survive in large doses. But it was also Kirk’s carefulness with the ball, his ability to feed Boozer in his sweet spot on the post (or Noah in the pick-and-roll), and of course, his stifling individual defense. The Bulls’ offensive rating was higher when he was on the court than off, and their opponents’ offensive rating was lower. He was valuable, even if he wasn’t good.
Watching him most of the season, I could feel this, even if I couldn’t explain it or justify it. I saw him miss far, far more shots than he made, but somehow none of the misses really seemed to be his fault — he was just doing what he was supposed to be doing, playing the role the limited Bulls’ offense demanded him to play. The Bulls’ offense had become so systemic in Rose’s absence, with each offensive possession seeming like a complicated solution to one of those “Die Hard With a Vengeance” logic puzzles, that once it came down to its final act — whether it be an open deep Hinrich jumper from the wing, a risky Noah bounce feed to the post, or a Rip Hamilton mid-range look off a screen or curl — it didn’t seem to matter whether the shot went in or not, they had already done all they could do. (Though judging by some of the Bulls writers I followed on Twitter who were calling for Hinrich’s head 25 games into the season, perhaps those most closely invested in the team did not feel similarly.)
In any event, now the Bulls are 3-1 with Kirk in the lineup in the postseason, and 0-2 without him. His loss of playoff time to injury will not go as widely reported or bemoaned as that of Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, David Lee or seemingly countless others, but is arguably just as consequential, even though he’s just a statistically below average point guard that would probably only be playing about 20 minutes off the bench for at least 12 other teams in this year’s playoffs. (Bet the Celtics wish they had him, tho.) The Bulls’ margin for error in the playoffs this year was already infinitesimally small, playing undermanned against a more talented Nets team, and losing Kirk’s steadying hand on offense, stubborn tenacity on defense, and general all-around Bullishness seems more than Chicago can weather for 48 minutes.
Hinrich’s injury has combined with the Bulls’ ever-increasing number of miscellaneous ailments to create a weird sense of injustice surrounding this Bulls-Nets series. Sure, every team has injury woes in the playoffs, especially this year, and teams like the Thunder and Lakers will certainly have no sympathy. But the Bulls were behind the eight ball from season’s beginning, fought to get to a decent seed in the playoffs without Derrick Rose, ground out two wins against a superior-on-paper team, and staged a spectacular, heart-swelling comeback to win a third, seemingly capturing the series. And now, Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are having their faith and “we have enough” resolve tested like God testing Job. Already playing without your best player and MVP? Deal with Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis. He’s still managing to play 20-25 a game? OK, how about a sore calf for Kirk Hinrich? Think you can squeeze a Game 6 at home without him? OK, your entire team now has the flu. It’s some biblical s—, and if Jimmy Butler gets swallowed by a whale or Nazr Mohammed’s wife turns into a pillar of salt by the end of the series, we should be little surprised.
It’s just not fair. It doesn’t seem right that the Nets, almost entirely healthy minus a touch of the plant-fasc for Joe Johnson as well, have a better-than-average chance to win this series now in a Game 7 at home, in which something like seven out of 12 of the Bulls’ roster will probably be game time decisions. The Bulls earned this freakin’ series. They stole one on the Nets’ home court after getting blown out the game before. They came back from 14 down with three minutes to go in Game 4. They played last night without Rose, Hinrich or Luol Deng, and with Jimmy Butler and Carlos Boozer being the only real rotation guys not to have some ailment that in any other line of work would earn them a week in bed with their significant others gently stroking their hair, and still had a chance to win the game in the final minute. How the hell does that not at least count for a draw? It’s just not fair.
Now, the Bulls just have one more chance to make it right, in that Game 7 on Saturday Night at Barclays. I really, really hope Kirk Hinrich is playing in that game. I might even check tickets on StubHub, just in case.