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Two words sum up Bulls’ disappointment—Carlos Boozer

In Bulls' most critical game seasCarlos Boozer—team's big off-seasacquisition—went 1 for 6 from floor had 6 rebounds 26 minutes. |

In the Bulls' most critical game of the season, Carlos Boozer—the team's big off-season acquisition—went 1 for 6 from the floor and had 6 rebounds in 26 minutes. | Getty Images

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Updated: May 27, 2011 2:03PM

Early in the first quarter in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night, the Bulls countered a double-team against Derrick Rose to near perfection.

Rose skipped a pass on the perimeter to Luol Deng, who fired the ball into the corner to Keith Bogans, who passed into the lane to Joakim Noah, who quickly dished to Carlos Boozer underneath the basket. All five players touched the ball in a span of about five seconds, with Boozer getting it underneath the hoop. The ball was ‘‘poppin.’’ The Bulls had the defense moving. Tom Thibodeau couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Dr. Naismith couldn’t have drawn it up any better.

But instead of going right at Joel Anthony, drawing a foul, scoring and converting a three-point play, Boozer hesitated, tried to avoid Anthony, went underneath the basket and missed a close-in shot under pressure.

For all that went wrong in the Bulls’ 83-80 loss to the Heat that eliminated them from the playoffs — the bogus calls, the missed free throws, the critical turnovers, the demise of Rose down the stretch and the will of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — it was Boozer’s inability to play at a level above a supporting cast member that ultimately turned an otherwise uplifting 2010-11 Bulls season into a disappointment.

Boozer finished with five points on 1-of-6 shooting and six rebounds in 26 minutes. He had no assists, steals or blocked shots. For the second game in a row he was called for a flagrant foul that cost the Bulls points in a game that went down to the wire. (And while both calls were questionable, Boozer should know by now how to foul purposely without giving the referees room to call a flagrant. Kyle Korver knows how to do it.)

Boozer’s Game 5 flame-out continued his history of petering out in the postseason. Last year he had 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting when the Utah Jazz were eliminated by the Lakers. The year before he scored 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting when the Jazz were eliminated by the Lakers. In 2008 he scored 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting when the Jazz were eliminated by the Lakers. In 2007, he scored nine points on 3-of-10 shooting when the Jazz were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs.

Boozer still averages 18.2 points a game in the postseason in his career (60 games). But in five season-ending losses he’s averaging 9.2 points and shooting 31 percent (16-of-51).

The difference this time is that Boozer didn’t play one second of the fourth quarter in the Bulls’ most critical game of the season. No matter how satisfied Thibodeau, John Paxson and Gar Forman insist they are with Boozer’s performance, that is a self-indicting statistic. The highest-paid player on the team — your Plan B after failing to sign LeBron James — did not play one second of the fourth quarter of the most critical game of the season. By definition, that is a failure.

The Bulls’ first step in their recovery from Thursday night’s disaster is to admit they have a Carlos Boozer problem. He has value. He puts up numbers. His teammates rally around him. But he’s not what they paid for. You know it. I know it. And somewhere in John Paxson’s heart of hearts, he knows it. If he doesn’t, that’s another problem.

Among the flaws this series exposed, the lack of a second ‘‘go-to guy’’ was by far the most prominent. What more evidence do you need that Rose was overwhelmed by the load he had to carry? In the fourth quarter of the final four games, Rose scored 18 points, shot 4-of-23 from the field, 1-of-8 on three-pointers, with six turnovers. If it takes more than numbers, the air ball at the end of regulation in Game 4 and the desperation three-pointer at the end of Game 5 pretty much tell the story.

Boozer has four years remaining on his five-year, $75 million contract. There’s no telling what the NBA landscape will look like once the new collective bargaining agreement is in place. But working around Boozer’s deal presents the biggest challenge for the Bulls in the offseason.

Unless Boozer plays a more prominent role next season, the Bulls are going to have to find the so-called ‘‘second-option’’ to take the pressure off Rose. Look at it this way: The Bulls played great team defense this season, squeezed every ounce out of their offense and they got beat by an AAU team — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 41 of the Heat’s 45 second-half points and all 26 fourth-quarter points in Game 5. The only other player to score was Mario Chalmers, who hit a three-pointer off the glass and a free throw after he was fouled by Luol Deng as Deng was chasing James on the baseline.

In other words, nobody else did much. In the second half, the Big Three’s supporting cast had one assist, no steals, one blocked shot, 10 rebounds and was 1-for-7 from the field — Chalmers’ off-target three that went in.

It’s pretty clear the Bulls need more than what they’ve got to overcome that, because unless the new CBA forces them to lose one of the Big Three, the Heat aren’t going to get worse in the offseason. The Bulls have to find a way to trade the Carlos Boozer they have for the one they signed.

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