Point guard C.J. Watson received death threats on his Twitter page after being scapegoated for the Chicago Bulls' season-ending NBA playoff loss to the underdog Philadelphia 76ers. With the Bulls leading by a point in the final seconds of Game 6, Watson passed the ball to wide-open teammate Omer Asik, who was fouled but missed both free throws. The 76ers turned the reprieve into a pair of late foul shots that won the game and ended the series.
Some Bulls fans blamed Watson for the loss, insisting he never should've passed the ball in that situation to a 45-percent free-throw shooter ... open or not. In addition to the death threats, Watson had to endure speculation that Chicago would not bring him back for the 2012-13 season, forcing him to join his third NBA team in six years. He played three seasons for Golden State before spending the past two with Chicago.
"It's hard to pick up and keep moving but that's the lifestyle you live," Watson said during a break in the A3 celebrity charity tournament at Knoxville's Three Ridges Golf Course.
Although vilified by some Bulls fans, Watson remains valued by Chicago brass. They recently announced plans to exercise their option and pay him $3.2 million in 2012-13.. That's pretty good money for a guy whose primary role is filling in when superstar Derrick Rose is tired or injured.
Rose suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Game 1 versus Philadelphia, forcing Watson to step in at playoff time for the NBA's premier point guard. How's that for pressure?
"It wasn't any pressure," Watson said with a shrug. "I just stepped in, like I'd been doing the whole season. I just tried to play well, lead the team and focus on getting a win at the end of the day."
Watson was on his way to a fine season before injuries sidetracked him. He was averaging 9.8 points, 3.7 assists and 21.5 minutes per outing through his first 27 game appearances. He had made eight starts during that span, and was hitting 52.2 percent from the field and 43.7 percent from 3-point range.
A sprained ankle sidelined him at this point, then he returned before he was fully healthy because Rose was having injury woes of his own. Still playing on a gimpy ankle and two feet that required offseason medical procedures, Watson could not guide the guide Bulls past Round 1 of the playoffs.
"Hopefully, next year we'll do a lot better than we did in the playoffs," he said.
Although Rose is expected to miss at least the first two months of the 2012-13 season, Watson believes Chicago will be a force in the year ahead.
"When D-Rose gets healthy, we'll be back at full strength," the former Vol said. "I think that's the one thing that hinders our chances -- everyone being healthy."
Many Vol fans consider Watson the finest point guard in program history. He started 118 of 119 games during his four-year career, averaging 12.0 points per game and recording an assist total (577) that ranks second on Tennessee's all-time list to this day.
Though undrafted, Watson earned an NBA roster spot after paying his dues and honing his skills in the Developmental League. That experience taught him a lot.
"I learned about dedication and hard work, never giving up," he said. "It's about always believing."
Although immersed in his NBA career, Watson managed to follow his alma mater a little last winter. He sees a bright future for the Vols under second-year head man Cuonzo Martin.
"He did a good job," Watson said. "I haven't met him but I've heard a lot of good things about him. I hear he's a hard worker who demands a lot of his players and is a great coach."
Although the Bulls were eliminated early, Watson is following the NBA playoffs closely. He has a good idea who will win the title.
"I like Miami," he said. "I think LeBron (James) is going to win it this year. I think they're on a mission."