Michael Jordan led Chicago to back-to-back-to-back titles twice within an eight-year time frame in the 1990s, taking the MVP in each of those six seasons. He single-handedly (no time for a Scotty Pippen debate here) etched the franchise into the history books and made the Bulls’ logo recognizable around the globe.
So yeah, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Bulls fans.
But, for the Bulls faithful in the Windy City, it’s actually been quite a rough ride since the greatest of all time (again, keep your Kobe/LeBron commentary to yourself here) hung up his sneakers.
Over the past sixteen seasons the Bulls have only advanced past the first round of the playoffs three times. They missed the post-season dance altogether nearly half of those years and have only advanced to the Conference Semis once, in 2010-11.
It was in that same 2010-11 season that a new superstar emerged at United Center. Derrick Rose. He was the savior that could return the Bulls to NBA glory.
Of course we all know the dealio with Derrick Rose. Ever since his MVP campaign, he’s been on and off the court (mostly off) with injury.
When Rose tore up his knee (again) last November, many pundits expected Chicago to wind up meandering through a ho-hum season. And for much of the year this prediction was spot on. Indiana’s reign over the Central Division was never in doubt, and the Bulls hovered just over .500 month in and month out.
They looked better than average, but not nearly good enough to be seriously considered as a threat to the Heat or Pacers in the East. Recently, however, the boys in red have been turning heads and it’s high time we take notice.
With three games remaining and riding a seven-game win streak (9 of the last 10), the Bulls have a legitimate shot at winning out (@NYK, ORL, @CHA) and finishing with a very respectable 50-win season.
Chicago now sits alone in the #3 seed, a spot long held by the Toronto Raptors. With Indiana and Miami knotted up at (54-26) it still remains to be seen who they’d face in the Conference Semi-Finals should they advance, but the Bulls are looking more and more like a team that won’t be star-struck no matter who they go up against this post-season.
Tom Thibodeau prefers to take it step by step
Ask Coach what he thinks about his team’s chances in the playoffs and he’ll probably shift the focus to tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden against the recently eliminated NY Knicks. He notes that focusing on the next opponent has worked well up to this point in the season and so there’s no need to change out of their lucky socks.
Guard Jimmy Butler, however, wasn’t afraid to leak this tidbit of information about the team’s post-season outlook: “I feel like we’re in a groove. Playoffs are right around the corner. There’s nothing but smiling going on.”
Speaking of smiling, All-Star center Joakim Noah believes that much of the team’s success comes from their ability to take the game seriously and stay relaxed at the same time: “You can play with an edge and have fun. When we play the Miami Heat, I’m not smiling, but I’m having fun. I love to compete and our team loves to compete. We’re playing well right now and we’re focused.”
Taking a page from Indiana’s book
Just like the division leading Pacers, Chicago wins behind great defense and not prolific offense. The Bulls rank last in the NBA in total scoring at just 93.6 ppg, but during the current win streak they are outscoring their opponents by 11.7 points (101.7-90.0).
Their inability to consistently put big points on the scoreboard is certainly disconcerting, but the deeper you get into the playoffs the more important defense becomes.
While Rose’s departure has left the team without a true scoring superstar, Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin are really starting to step up as the team’s most efficient scorers. Augustin in particular is providing a great deal of offense in limited playing time. Over the past five games he’s averaged 20.8 points in less than thirty minutes on the court.
It’s really hard to win a title without suiting up a true “go-to” guy, but the Bulls are starting to believe in themselves at a time when both Miami and Indiana look to be more vulnerable and less invincible.
I get by with a little help from my friends
Teams that rely on a balanced scoring effort must have the ability to distribute the rock efficiently and get easy looks at the basket. Generally this responsibility falls on the shoulders of the point guard, but Chicago prefers to drop the ball into the post and then kick it out from there.
Joakim Noah leads the team with 5.3 assists per game and should he continue this same pace for the final three games, he’ll be the first center to average 5.3 over the course of a full season since Vlade Divac did so in 2003-4.
This is no small accomplishment. While Divac may be best known as the King of Flops, he’s also one of the greatest passing centers of all time.
Here’s another historical fact to shed some light on Noah’s dishing abilities. The last big man to lead his squad in total assists for a season was San Antonio’s David Robinson with 381 in 1993-94. Noah’s already got well over 400.
Noah’s already an All-Star, but he’s got the potential to become the backbone of this team. And he’s a great leader with a great attitude.
Can gritty cut it when the money’s on the table?
Chicago’s winning formula is more traditional than the modern “light up the scoreboard” approach that most teams take nowadays. They like to hustle on defense and play unselfish turnover free basketball on offense. They rely greatly on crashing the offensive boards for second chances as opposed to scoring efficiently to begin with, and they’ll often play completely unbalanced games but bring the pain big time in 4th quarter comebacks like they did on Friday night versus the Pistons.
The style sounds unsustainable in today’s high-scoring NBA, but with Chicago boasting the best record in the Eastern Conference since January 1 there must be some method to their madness.
The truth is that high-intensity “never say die” teams often thrive in the post-season, not just in basketball, but with sports in general. You see it all the time where teams that lead the league in regular season scoring falter when it matters most. Sometimes teams that have yet to face adversity can’t cut the mustard when it comes to the all-out war that is the playoffs.
For me, Chicago’s late-season win streak is simply our latest clue that the Eastern Conference playoffs are going to wind up being a hell of a lot more exciting than we all thought they’d be three months ago.
It’s no longer the Heat or Pacers and then a pile of steaming turds (which is precisely what the scenario looked like prior to the All-Star break). Chicago and Toronto have been on fire of late and Brooklyn has shown flashes of brilliance. Let’s get this party started already.
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