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It's growing pains for Bulls
Back on Oct. 31, 2006, the possibilities seemed limitless.
A mind-boggling 42-point blowout of the defending NBA champion Heat suggested the Bulls' potential was whatever they wanted to make it.
After a slow start, more chest-puffing victories over the Mavericks, Spurs, Pistons and Suns came with enough frequency and certainty that dreams flourished.
Then came the first-round sweep of the Heat. Remember that? It seems so long ago after Thursday night at the United Center.
The Detroit Pistons snuffed the Bulls' planned storybook season with a 95-85 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning the series convincingly 4-2.
When it ended, the Bulls shook the Pistons' hands and then their own heads, the hurt of elimination too fresh for any perspective on progress.
"It's hard to think about growth right now," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "This loss just really stings."
The Pistons are heading to their fifth straight Eastern Conference finals, the first team to do that since the 1992-93 Bulls.
The Bulls, for the third straight season, are left to ponder what might have been.
"Almost all the time in a seven-game series, the best team wins," coach Scott Skiles said. "They're the best team right now. They deserved to win."
Hinrich and Ben Gordon, often the engines that drive the Bulls, picked rough times to have rough games.
Hinrich wore a wrap on his non-shooting sprained left wrist and discolored his double-double of 11 points and 11 assists with 3-of-13 shooting.
Gordon got hot late to score 19 points. But, much like the rest of the team, he failed to hit big shots at big times.
This is never a good sign: P.J. Brown led the Bulls with 20 points, all in the first half.
The Bulls shot just 33.3 percent in the second half, 30 percent in the fourth quarter and 37.3 percent overall.
"We started missing some shots and the ball stopped moving for us," Hinrich said. "That usually spells trouble for us."
Richard Hamilton scored 23 points and Chauncey Billups scored 21 for the Pistons. Whichever team's backcourt scored the most points won each game of the series.
Billups waved goodbye to the fans who started streaming out with 29.7 seconds left. At the same time, Skiles took Gordon, Hinrich and Luol Deng (17 points) out to receive their final ovations from the crowd.
"I can be as impatient as anybody else," Skiles said. "But I do realize we've gone from one of the bottom five teams in the league to one of the top eight in three years with predominantly young players. That's not easy to do. We're back to more than respectability. But we want to take the next step."
The back-and-forth nature of the series was encapsulated in one game with the Bulls dominating the first half and the Pistons taking over the second.
The game turned in the third quarter when the Pistons erased a 48-43 halftime deficit with a 12-1 run. Later in the quarter, Billups drew Hinrich's fourth foul while shooting a three-pointer and made three free throws for a 73-64 Pistons lead.
"I just thought right at the start of the second half we let up," Skiles said. "We didn't have the same juice. We looked slow for four minutes. Those hurt us. Then we started overdribbling.
"We had a great effort. I just wish we could have played better."
The Pistons built an 81-72 lead in the fourth quarter as the Bulls missed seven straight shots and committed three turnovers.
Suddenly, the rim started shrinking. Deng, typically a midrange marksman, shot an air ball from 18 feet.
The Bulls scored just three points in the first 7:54 of the fourth, missing eight of nine shots. When Rasheed Wallace made a turnaround jumper from the foul line and Andres Nocioni missed a three-pointer on the following possession, even the sellout crowd of 23,030 knew.
"It's always hard because you go, go, go, go, and then, boom, the season is over," Skiles said. "It happens so fast. You hope if it's your last game, you put your best foot forward. Otherwise you walk out feeling hollow. And that's how I feel right now."
The Pistons made like the Bulls of Tuesday night with sizzling first-quarter shooting, hitting seven of their first eight. Hamilton, in particular, scorched Gordon with 10 first-quarter points as the Bulls started with Hinrich on Billups for the second straight game.
But the Bulls ratcheted up their aggressiveness in the second quarter, getting into the penalty with 8:02 remaining and drawing Billups' second foul.
Brown exited to a standing ovation with 27.9 seconds left in the first half. Brown already had reached his season-high and tied his playoff high over 81 career games.
It wasn't enough. Counting preseason and playoffs, the Bulls played 100 games and won 61 of them. It's the 39th loss that will haunt them all off-season.
"I can tell you this: I'm proud of the fight these guys put up night in and night out," Ben Wallace said.
"There was a lot of hype and expectations because I came here. And they had my back every step of the way."