If they were dogs, the Blackhawks would be purebreds, wet noses held high in the air. The Bulls would be mutts, all heart and earnestness.
The Hawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Bulls like to defend — or else, their coach says.
The Hawks must win the Cup again for the season to be a success. The Bulls need to win a first-round series and do well in a second-round series for the city to speak glowingly of the plucky team that refused to die. Even if they don’t get that far, we probably will understand.
If the Hawks don’t win the title, the chorus around town will tell them that they didn’t work hard enough, that Bryan Bickell didn’t deserve the big contract extension, that Corey Crawford can’t play goalie, that coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t know how to mix lines and that general manager Stan Bowman blew it by not getting a second-line center or by not letting 19-year-old Teuvo Teravainen be that second-line center.
If the Bulls lose . . . well, of course, they’re going to lose. They’re without their best player. They’re forgiven.
Welcome to our world of dueling, contrary expectations. It’s a strange planet, populated by two distinct species.
The Bulls would die to be in the Hawks’ place. The Hawks wouldn’t be caught dead in any other place.
The Hawks are expected to win. The Bulls are expected to fight the good fight, expire nobly and wait for Derrick Rose’s return next season. Unless he gets hurt again, in which case the team can revert to being overachievers and Rose can revert to getting his brains beat in, public relations-wise.
It’s hard for the Hawks to come out ahead in the perception battle. If they win a game in less-than-convincing fashion, it’s cause for panic in the Chicago area. If they lose a game, the city goes into death throes. Over in the land of reduced expectations, the Bulls usually are greeted by sunny skies, mostly because they play close to their potential every game.
Hawks fans are stressed out about the perceived ups and downs of their team (pay no attention to the 105 points, tied for sixth-most in the NHL!) and the injuries to superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Bulls fans find no shortage of things to be enthusiastic about: Joakim Noah’s hustle, coach Tom Thibodeau’s clichés, Jimmer Fredette’s bench posture, whatever.
In a way, I almost feel sorry for the Hawks, in the way I almost feel sorry for how billions of dollars must isolate Bill Gates from the rest of the world. The Hawks have to be excellent all the time. That’s how we look at them. Anything else is unacceptable. Compared with the 2009-10 and 2012-13 championship seasons, this ride doesn’t seem as enjoyable for players and fans alike. Too bad. On the other hand, that’s the cost of being great.
Shouldn’t I be feeling sorry for the Bulls, who have lost their superstar to knee injuries the last two seasons? Probably. Yet they have risen above those injuries and taught a city about taking what you’re given and going beyond. We’re almost to the point where it’s hard to remember what life was like with Rose. All we’ve known the last two seasons is a team that has refused to give up. The Bulls aren’t great, but they’ve gotten almost as many accolades as some of the great teams in the league. Every NBA coach who comes through town raves about the Bulls’ effort and results.
The Hawks don’t get that kind of praise as often. What they do get is their opponents’ best effort every night. It’s the highest compliment a team can receive. There is no rest for the defending champions.
We’re dealing in stereotypes here, and it’s probably not fair. The ‘‘blueblood’’ Hawks are just as hardworking as the Bulls. Nothing has been given to them. And those ‘‘gutsy’’ Bulls have had the advantage of playing in a very weak Eastern Conference, where the team in the final playoff spot entered play Tuesday eight games below .500. By comparison, the team in eighth place in the Western Conference is 15 games above .500.
But the stereotypes have had an effect. The tenacious Bulls have it a lot easier in town than the uber-talented Hawks. If there’s a lesson for both teams, it’s this: It’s best to be great. But whatever you do, don’t be as bad as the Cubs.