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Shawn Foss

Shawn Foss

If you asked NBA fans a month ago how the Eastern Conference Playoffs would play out, most of them would have had the same answer: It’ll end up in a showdown between the Heat and Pacers. While the Pacers and Heat are now locked into the 1 and 2 seeds, their clash in the finals is no longer a foregone conclusion. Both teams have stumbled to the finish, with Indiana going 9-13 since March 4th, and Miami not much better at 11-13 in the same stretch. Their struggles have cracked the door open for the Bulls, Nets and Raptors to spoil the party and upend one of the top seeds. There is still one tiny wrinkle: We don’t know who’s playing who yet. With one day left in the regular season, the 3rd-7th seeds in the East playoffs are still up for grabs, and the uncertainty has caused some teams to put up less than their best efforts to dictate their playoff matchups.

Tanking has been a big problem around the NBA over the past couple years. Just ask fans of the Bucks and 76ers how much fun their teams were to watch this year. Now it seems tanking has spread its way to the playoff teams. The Heat essentially punted the one seed by sitting LeBron James and Chris Bosh in an embarrassing loss to the Wizards on Monday, and the Brooklyn Nets are doing everything they can to lose their way to the 6-seed. The Nets have dropped 3 out of 4 and have talked about sitting several rotation players in their final game. Why are these teams making sure they get lower seeds than they could? They don’t want to play the Bulls. The Nets don’t want to face them in the 1st round, and the Heat don’t want to in the 2nd, but they might not have a choice if the Raptors lose to New York on Wednesday. The Bulls, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about what the rest of the East is doing. They don’t care who they play, they just keep grinding and keep winning. “We’re not changing,” mentioned Coach Tom Thibodeau on Monday night. “I think we’re playing very good basketball right now, so we’re not changing our approach.” That successful approach was on full display on Monday night.

The Bulls continued their strong April by handling the Orlando Magic 108-95 on Monday to improve to 8-1 over their past 9 games. They played without point guard D.J. Augustin, who was away from the team for the birth of his child, but it didn’t matter. Jimmer Fredette stepped in almost seamlessly to Augustin’s role and tallied 17 points in just over 30 minutes. “To come out and deliver like that without having played in such a long time, it just shows what kind of worker and professional guy [Jimmer] is,” commented Joakim afterwards. “He’s a hell of a player.” Jimmer was one of 6 Bulls in double figures in the game while Taj Gibson added another 8 points. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah tallied double-doubles (almost another triple-double for Jo at 18-10-8), and 4 of the Bulls 5 starters dished out at least 4 assists. That offensive balance is what makes the Bulls a real challenge to defend. “I thought the ball movement was terrific,” explained Thibs after the game. “I thought everyone was making quick decisions, high assists, low turnovers and everyone involved… Offensively, I love what we’re doing.”

The Bulls would like to ride this wave of momentum into the playoffs, but they still have one more stop in Charlotte to face the Bobcats on Wednesday. A win in Charlotte paired with a Toronto loss would put Chicago into the number 3 seed. A loss or Toronto win would put them into the 4 spot. Either way, their first round opponent will be Brooklyn or Washington, but the Nets and Wizards aren’t locked in to their seeds yet either. To the outside observer, there’s little benefit to winning the 3rd seed. The Bulls might still have to face off with the very talented and experienced Nets in the first round, and then battle the East favorite Miami in the second round. With the 4-seed, their second round foe would be the unraveling Pacers. The 4 seems to be the path of least resistance, but the Bulls’ players don’t seem too interested in that. “However the chips fall, it’s the playoffs, everybody’s good,” explained Taj Gibson. “We just take it one step at a time,” added Carlos Boozer. “We let everybody else do all the assuming they want to do. We’ll beat Charlotte on Wednesday, see who we match up with, and go from there.”

The one thing the Bulls do know is that they are playing some pretty solid basketball lately. If you had suggested that this team would approach 50 wins when they were 9-16, you’d probably have been laughed at, but they’ve rallied back all year. “We’ve got a good rhythm with our starters and our bench guys, and with guys like Tony and Jimmer, we’ve got guys we can go to if something happens,” explained Thibs. “You need everybody, and I love the makeup of our team. I think we have the right type of guys. They work extremely hard each and every day and they help the group move forward.” That makeup is a big part of why the Bulls aren’t concerned with their playoff matchups. They want to go out and beat whoever’s in front of them. “We’re not worried about anybody,” quipped Boozer. “I don’t think my teammates worry about whoever we match up with.”

Wednesday night will undoubtedly clear up a lot of the uncertainty surrounding the East playoffs, but there is no uncertainty with the Bulls. They know who they are and how they have to win games, and everyone is on the same page entering the playoffs. “We’re just focused on ourselves,” said Gibson, “Just getting ready to play some tough-nosed, rugged basketball. We understand the stakes. We understand what it’s about.” The Bulls aren’t burdened by the same expectations the Heat and Pacers face, but they aren’t concerned about that. “Expectations don’t help you win basketball games,” asserted Joakim. “We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities, and we believe…whoever we play, we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give ‘em hell. We’re hungry. We want this.” That attitude is why nobody wants the Bulls, but at least one team isn’t going to have a choice. I don’t envy that team (or the one who gets the Bulls after).

The calendar has turned to April, and in the NBA, that generally means the focus has turned to the playoffs. The Bulls, however, still have some business to take care of in the regular season. They’ve successfully turned their season around, but they’ve spent much of the last couple months attempting to chase down the Toronto Raptors for the East’s 3-seed behind East juggernauts Miami and Indiana. The road to get to this point has been a perilous one. There have been tough losses along the way to teams like the Spurs, Thunder, Nets, and most recently to the Trailblazers on Friday. Despite those L’s, the Bulls finally managed to pull even with Toronto by sweeping a home-and-home series from the pesky Boston Celtics.

The Celtics come out of the two games with a measly record of 23-51, but they didn’t make things easy on the Bulls. In game 1 in Boston, the Bulls needed just about every one of D.J. Augustin’s career-high 33 points to fend off the C’s 107-102. Joakim Noah played the role of distributor, dishing out 13 assists as the Bulls squeaked out the win. Game 2 on Monday night didn’t play out exactly the same as Sunday’s, but the results were the same. Noah took on more of a scoring load with 19 in the 2nd game while D.J. scored just 4 a night after his career-best game, instead sharing the ball and racking up 11 assists. The Celtics were down just 1 entering the 4th for the second straight night, but again it was the Bulls who performed best when the chips were down, outscoring the Celtics 23-10 in the final stanza to pick up a 94-80 win. Mike Dunleavy scored 22 to lead the Bulls in the victory.

Considering the drastic swings in statistics, it was clear the Celtics made some adjustments to not get beat by D.J. again, but the Bulls showed just how adaptable they are to different defensive approaches. “I don’t think you go into the game thinking about what’s going to…You don’t know what’s going to happen,” explained Noah. “Every game is different, and it’s all about finding ways to win, so we just try to be as versatile as possible.” It also helps when you have one of the league’s top defenses to fall back on in the 4th quarter of a tight game. “Nobody can get easy offense against Chicago,” lamented Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens after losing to them for the second time in as many nights. “They’re obviously, along with Indiana and another handful of teams, the elite of the elite defensively in this league. It’s as good a defense as I’ve ever coached against.”

Monday’s game was just another demonstration of just how tough the Bulls can be in the fourth quarter. “Our focus is different in the fourth quarter,” mentioned Augustin. “We just have to lock in, and the fourth quarter is winning time, so that’s what we pretty much do, just lock in.” The group they finish games with is exceptional on the defensive end and versatile on offense, and it’s been driving opponents nuts. Coach Thibs expounded on the matchup problems his finishing group (Joakim, Taj, D.J., Hinrich & Butler) can cause after the win: “That’s the advantage we have with the finishing group. We can put 2 point guards out there. We can put the ball in Jo’s hands, and we can put the ball in Taj’s hands. The job of those guys is to read what’s going on in the game, how we’re being defended. If someone has a hot hand, we’re going to try to go to that. If someone has a match-up, you try to go to that. If we can get 2 on the ball, we have to make the right play. Basically, that’s what we are trying to get accomplished.” Considering that the Bulls are 30-14 since the calendar turned to 2014, I’d say they’re getting that accomplished.

While the Bulls were busy dispatching of Boston on Monday night, the Toronto Raptors were taking some lumps from the Heat in Miami. With the Bulls’ win and Raps’ loss, both teams sit at 42-32 with just 8 games left to play. I think it’s safe to say that both teams want to get to that 3rd seed considering what’s happening with the rest of the East playoff picture. “I think it’s very important,” offered Mike Dunleavy on Monday. “We want to try to get as high as we can, not only with home-court advantage but also avoiding the first seed in the second round, if we’re fortunate enough to advance. We just want to get as high as we can.” With the way the Pacers are crumbling down the stretch (losers of10 of 16, including their last 3), they seem like the ideal second round matchup for any team with hopes of making the East finals. The Pacers are a shell of the team that started 46-13, and nobody wants to go through the Heat to get there. It would also be helpful to not have to play the red-hot Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Nets have won 14 of 18 and have a boatload of playoff experience. The Washington Wizards would present a much more favorable matchup to both the Bulls and Raptors, but only one can have the luxury of facing them.

The schedule over the final 8 games seems to favor the Bulls despite having 5 road games left to Toronto’s 3. The Wizards are the only team left on the Bulls’ slate that currently boasts a winning record (38-36). Minnesota and Charlotte are close to .500 at 1 and 2 games under, respectively, and the Bulls also get Atlanta and New York down the stretch, the 2 teams battling for the East’s final playoff spot. It doesn’t help matters that the 5 best teams the Bulls have left are the 5 they get to play on the road, but Chicago should be favored in every game they have left. Toronto, on the other hand, has to square off with Indiana and Houston in their next 2 games, both of whom are at least 25 games over .500. Even with those games at home and Indy’s swoon, winning one or both of those will be a daunting task. The rest of the schedule for Toronto is pretty favorable, as they draw East bottom-feeders Philly, Detroit and Milwaukee (twice), but they also get two with the resurgent Knicks. I think the 3-seed is going to come down to which team slips up against a team they shouldn’t, and I think that team will be the Raptors.

You could say that over the next 8 games we’ll get a lot of insight into what the Bulls are made of, but don’t we already know what they’re made of? Hasn’t this team showed its resiliency and overcome enough adversity for us to know to not pick against them or count them out? I tend to believe they have, and that’s why I fully expect Chicago to enter the playoffs at seed number 3. They’ve got the right edge, the right mentality and the right focus to do what needs to be done for these final 8 games. “We’ve got a bunch of games coming up. None of them are going to be easy,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “We’re going into Atlanta, they won tonight. They’re fighting for their playoff life. None of these games are going to be easy, they’re going to come down to will and determination. We’ve got to get ready for this push.” If the Bulls’ play continues to live up to Coach Thibs mantra of ‘One game at a time,’ and they continue to play with their grinder mentality, the 3rd seed will take care of itself. After that, the real fun begins.

The NBA regular season is a grind. It’s grueling. The games keep coming, all 82 of them, and it doesn’t matter what time of day they start, if they’re back-to-backs, or how good the opponent is. In the NBA, if you don’t come ready to play, you can get beat by anyone. The Chicago Bulls, like many teams, have learned this the hard way. They’ve played much of the season short-handed with their best player out with injury and their second-best player shipped off to save money, and have seen on several occasions this year what can happen if you don’t play with the intensity level you need to. “When you’re playing short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” explained Coach Tom Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.”

What happens when the Bulls don’t come out with that readiness to play? They lose to Dallas by 22, or to Sacramento by 29, or to Miami by 14, or most recently, to San Antonio by 8 in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score. “We got our asses kicked,” lamented Joakim Noah after the Spurs game. “Every time we lose, Thibs always blames himself, but I don’t think it’s his fault. It’s everybody. We’ve got to be ready to play. I’m disappointed that they came out with the better edge tonight, usually that’s us.” Over the course of 82 games, these types of games are going to happen. Nobody goes 82-0, but what really has me excited about this Bulls’ team is how they respond to these bad performances.

Since the Bulls started turning their season around on December 19th, they’re 13-1 in games following a loss. They don’t let one bad game turn into 2 or more. After losing badly to Dallas, the Bulls went into the Grindhouse and beat a really good Memphis Grizzlies team. After the Sacramento loss, they won in Phoenix, and after the San Antonio loss this past week, the Bulls throttled the Houston Rockets, who had won 15 of their previous 18 games, by 24. “There’s no question we’ve got a resiliency to be able to do that,” mentioned Mike Dunleavy after the win Thursday. “We took a tough loss on Tuesday night, and to bounce back the way we did is great.” Dunleavy himself had a game on Thursday that really felt like a microcosm of the Bulls’ season.

Early on in the second quarter, Dunleavy took a really hard charge from Rockets’ forward Chandler Parsons. The contact not only drew a whistle, it drew blood…lots of it. Dunleavy had a gash above his right eye and blood just running down his face. He may as well have been making another remake of “Carrie.” He went to the locker room, got 10 stitches to close up the wound, and came back into the game to start the second half. The Rockets probably wish he hadn’t. Dunleavy didn’t score in the 1st half, but he set the nets on fire in the 3rd quarter, scoring 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-4 from 3), and grabbed 5 rebounds in the frame as well. Mike’s resilient performance had his coach singing his praises after the game. “He’s a consummate pro. He plays hard every night and gives himself up for the team,” gushed Thibs. “That is the price of winning. He came back after the stitches and took another charge. When you talk about toughness-that’s toughness. You have to have mental toughness and physical toughness, and he has it.” It sounds almost as if Thibs could be talking about the whole team.

The Rockets took notice of Dunleavy’s second half as well. “He got hit by Chandler, and he just came back with a different attitude,” mentioned Dwight Howard. That’s exactly what the Bulls do. They take a hit, and they come back with a totally different attitude the next game. They play with a chip on their shoulder and feed off of each other’s toughness and intensity. It’s usually Joakim that sets the tone, but Jo was happy to let Dunleavy do the honors on Thursday. “It shows a lot about the character of this team,” commented Noah. “I’ve never seen anything like that. To get rocked the way he got rocked, blood really coming down hard, getting 10 stitches, and then play the second half the way he played? I dig that sh*t.” He also jokingly added that, “It was good for Duke’s street credibility.”

All jokes aside, it’s the culture of the Bulls’ locker room that has really built their toughness and resilience. The players may take their cues in terms of intensity and attitude from Joakim Noah, but there’s no dominant alpha dog in the Bulls locker room. “We’re a team full of leaders,” explained Jimmy Butler. “Not one guy, not two guys, everyone has to hold everyone accountable.” That’s the mentality of a championship locker room. The league has seen plenty of great teams in terms of talent never really get over the hump and win a title because they don’t have that mentality. Are the Bulls a championship team in terms of talent? Probably not, but having that championship attitude in the locker room can really take them a long way.

As the season winds down, there’s no question in my mind the Bulls will continue to be a resilient bunch and keep grinding for the best seed possible for the playoffs. Their mental toughness is ingrained in their DNA at this point. Coach Thibodeau mentioned on Thursday that “every game is a test,” but the real test will come in the playoffs. The Bulls should be able to dispatch of anybody in the East not from Indiana or Miami, but the Pacers and Heat are different animals. In terms of talent, they are championship-level teams who can run them off the floor. I rest a little easier knowing that if the Bulls do get throttled in a playoff game by Miami or Indy, they’ll take that hit and come back with a different attitude and a sharpened up edge for the next game. “This team doesn’t take anything for granted,” explained Noah. “Just because you usually do it doesn’t mean that it happens. You’ve got to go out there and do it.” With Noah and company playing with that mentality, their showdowns with Miami or Indy in the postseason will be must-see TV.

Coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are doing it again. They aren’t just surviving without Derrick Rose, for a second straight season they are thriving without him. Joakim Noah is playing at a near MVP level, Taj Gibson is garnering mention for sixth man of the year, D.J. Augustin is enjoying a serious career renaissance and Jimmy Butler is on the brink of becoming a star player. The team just throttled the Knicks on Sunday for their 9th win in 10 games and Joakim Noah just became the 3rd Bull ever to have 5 triple-doubles in a Chicago uniform (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are the others). The Bulls’ season is really picking up steam. Somehow, though, the topic picking up the most steam in Chicago is the rampant rumor that the Bulls will target Knicks’ superstar Carmelo Anthony in free agency this summer. The Knicks are a mess this season, sitting at 21-40 and in 11th in the miserable Eastern Conference. They don’t have a 1st round draft pick in the June draft and they don’t really have much cap space to add better players around Melo if he were to return to the team next year. It’s not hard to see why Carmelo would want out of New York. The question is: Should the Bulls want him here?

On paper, adding Carmelo seems like an obvious choice. He’s been an elite scorer for his entire career, averaging 25.3 points per game (28.0 this season) and won the league scoring title in 2012-13 with 28.7 points a game. He’s a 6-time All-Star and a guy who’s been the best player on winning teams his entire career. In fact, 2014 will be the first time he’s missed the playoffs in his entire 11-year career (assuming the Knicks don’t miraculously make the playoffs). He’s even improved his game in the past couple of seasons, becoming a better 3-point shooter and rebounder. In order to make room for Anthony under the salary cap, the Bulls would likely have to shed the salaries of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Most people are expecting the Bulls to use the amnesty clause to release Boozer this offseason regardless of what happens with Carmelo, so you’re basically talking about swapping Taj for Melo. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that Taj Gibson is a better basketball player than Carmelo Anthony. We’re talking about a 6-time All-Star versus a 6th man. Like I said, on paper this decision is an easy one, but the games aren’t played on paper.

It’s easy to look at the raw numbers and project Melo as the scorer who can complement Derrick Rose (assuming he returns healthy, of course) and take some of the defensive pressure off him, but the raw numbers won’t tell you how Carmelo will fit in with this Bulls’ team. The chemistry the Chicago Bulls have right now is something special. They pull for one another, they trust one another, and they have a ton of confidence. They have a great work ethic and they hang their hat on how hard they play, especially on defense. “For us, when you are short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” asserted Coach Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.” How much of that description of the Bulls sounds like it could also describe Carmelo? He has a ton of confidence. That’s about it. Rather than pull for his teammates, Anthony is more often questioning their effort. Bulls’ players Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson joked in the locker room after Sunday’s game that they overheard Melo during a 1st quarter timeout ask his teammates, “What’s wrong with y’all?,” and Boozer quipped, “Of course he’s not blaming himself. ‘Not me. What’s wrong with y’all?’” Melo claimed earlier this season that he accepts that fans are going to blame him for the team’s struggles, but it’s hard to believe that claim when he points fingers everywhere but at himself in team huddles and with the media.

“It’s getting harder to keep coming up with excuses about why this team’s struggling,” mentioned Carmelo Sunday. “At this point, I don’t have any answers towards it. As a team we have to have some sense of pride to go out there and compete. We’re just not getting it done. I’m sick of making excuses about this and about that. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing.” Carmelo isn’t the only Knick who’s fed up with the way things are going. J.R. Smith questioned the effort of some of his teammates last week, and when asked about Smith’s comments, Knicks’ forward Amare’ Stoudemire didn’t pull any punches. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror before we make statements,” retorted Amare’. “We’ve got to make sure that we are playing hard first. Take care of yourself, then others will follow suit. We’ve got to lead by example.” When was the last time you heard a Bulls’ player make excuses or point fingers at teammates? Even when the team was flailing to a 9-16 start, no one was blaming the struggles on Derrick’s injuries or anyone else in the locker room. They just kept working and striving to get it fixed. The Bulls’ locker room wasn’t exactly a happy place when they were dealing with their struggles early on, but there’s a difference between a downtrodden locker room and a dysfunctional one. The Knicks’ locker room is dysfunctional, and you can bet Carmelo Anthony isn’t exactly faultless in it getting that way. Granted, Carmelo might change his tune if he were on a winning team, but I’m not sure his style of play would be a great fit in the Bulls’ system.

Carmelo has developed a reputation over the years as a ball-stopper, meaning the ball stops with Melo. He’s only looking to shoot, not pass. His numbers back that up. Carmelo is averaging 2.9 assists per game this year and 3.1 for his career. When you draw as much defensive attention as Carmelo does, you almost have to be trying to not find open teammates to have such a low average. Of the league’s top ten scorers this season, only Melo and Blazers’ power forward LaMarcus Aldridge average fewer than 3 and a half assists per game. The Knicks as a team have a real problem with ball movement, and it’s something that’s frustrated Amare’ Stoudemire since he arrived in New York. “If you think about the top teams in this league, they all move the ball very well,” explained Amare’. “For us, we’re not quite there yet. Until we get there, it’s going to be a struggle. I’ve been saying that for years, so it seems like we’re not serious.” The Knicks are currently dead last in the NBA in the percentage of their field goals assisted on (52.7%), and they are a full 2 and a half percent behind the 2nd worst team. The Bulls on the other hand are 2nd in the league at 64.46%. Sharing the basketball is a big part of Chicago’s offense and it’s something Carmelo would have to improve on.

Melo hasn’t ever garnered much attention for his defensive game either, something that would have to change under Coach Thibs. Defense has to be a priority to play in Chicago. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson learned that last year, as have Tony Snell and D.J. Augustin this year. More importantly, we just haven’t seen much of an evolution to Carmelo’s game. He’s never shown the ability to make his teammates better, and he really hasn’t improved much since he entered the league except in his ability to score. All in all, Carmelo would have to remake his game in a lot of ways to really mesh with the Bulls and be a good fit in their system, and I’m just not sure it’s something he can do after 11 years in the league.

The Bulls’ have really found a great mix as the team is constituted right now. Every player has a well-defined role, and everybody contributes. 7 of the Bulls’ 8 regulars scored in double figures in the win over the Knicks. “The balance has been big,” explained Thibs. “They know what to expect from each other. They are playing to their strengths and covering their weaknesses. They are sharing the ball, making quick decisions and playing strong defense. If you do those things, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.” The players really sense how well the team is clicking too. “That’s the makeup of our team,” commented Boozer. “We just keep grinding, whatever’s in front of us, we just take on the challenge. The great thing about us is our attitude. We’re not reading your [the media] newspapers, we’re not reading all the good stuff about us, we’re staying hungry.” Joakim Noah echoed Boozer’s sentiment on Sunday: “We’re still not satisfied. We feel like we’re the hungriest team playing in the NBA.” I just don’t think adding a player and person like Carmelo Anthony into this mix would be beneficial.

In the end, it’s likely that Carmelo’s talent will win out. The Bulls are probably going to pull out all the stops to try and get Melo to Chicago. They vowed when they dealt Luol Deng that any money saved in that deal would be put back into the team, and Melo, at least on paper, is the logical way to do that. Who knows, maybe playing in a structured system like Thibodeau’s will be just what Carmelo needed to shed his ball-stopping reputation. Maybe Joakim Noah’s strong personality will help keep Melo in line in the locker room. Maybe Carmelo really can provide that second scorer the Bulls need alongside Derrick Rose to be able to get past the Heat. I tend to believe there’s a reason Carmelo Anthony is 23-43 in the playoffs and 3-10 in playoff series. The biggest problem isn’t Carmelo’s supporting cast. It’s his “me first” style of play. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Carmelo Anthony will ever win an NBA title, and for that reason, I don’t want him in Chicago. I’d rather have Taj Gibson, who unlike Carmelo, believes in his team: “There’s no ceiling to what we can do.” Doesn’t that sound like a guy you’d want on your team?

For a long while this season, it really wasn’t fun to be a Chicago Bulls fan. The season was spiraling out of control in the wake of yet another season-ending Derrick Rose injury, and to compound the problem, the front office decided to ship off franchise cornerstone Luol Deng for no immediate return. Things were really getting bleak as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games in November and December to fall to a dismal 9-16 mark. Other names surfaced in trade rumors; talk of tanking was rampant from local sports fans and pundits, and the team failed to score 80 points in 4 out of 5 games during one particularly ugly stretch. Out of the despair surrounding the franchise, however, the Bulls have reemerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 18-9 since coming out of their early season tailspin, and a shockingly strong 13-7 since they jettisoned Luol. How have they turned things around? They’ve done it by leaning on their bigs.

Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are playing at levels that we just haven’t seen from them in their careers, and it’s their improvement that has buoyed the Bulls’ season and has the team entering the All-Star break at 27-25, good for 4th in the East. That duo has been getting better as the season has progressed, and their impact was on full display this past week as the Bulls made mincemeat of Eastern Conference playoff contenders Atlanta and Brooklyn. Taj lead the team in scoring in both games (one that he didn’t even start), and Joakim had a ridiculous triple-double against Atlanta (19 pts., 16 reb., 11 assists), and nearly duplicated the feat against the Nets (14-13-7). It’s one thing to dominate the defensive end the way Joakim and Taj do, but this season it has been their impact on the offensive end that’s making the big difference. “When those guys get going down low, guys have to double-team,” explained point guard D.J. Augustin, “and it leaves me and Kirk wide open for threes, makes us able to penetrate, and opens things up for the whole team.”

There are plenty of Bulls’ fans who would say it was Augustin who was the catalyst for the Bulls’ turnaround, and there’s a case to be made for that. D.J.’s averaging 13.8 points per game, 5.7 assists, is shooting 42.4% from beyond the arc, and seems to knock down a big 3 down the stretch of every close win. He’s been a big piece of the resurgence to be sure, but it’s the balance provided by Noah and Taj that have made his strong play possible, not to mention the pressure Noah can take off the point guard as a ball-handler and playmaker. When asked why he and Noah play so well off one another, Carlos Boozer responded: “I just play off Joakim, our point-center, and go from there. He’s just a great passer. With Jo, when he gets the ball, if you can get to an open area he’ll find you. He has the mindset of a guard. He really does, and that’s why he’s always knocking on triple-doubles. He wants to be a playmaker and make plays for all of us. When we get the ball to Jo, our offense runs a lot smoother.” Joakim’s ability to play ‘point-center’ allows Augustin play off the ball more and find those open 3-point opportunities.

Statistically there’s no denying Joakim’s having his best season yet. He’s averaging career-highs of 11.9 points (tied with last year), 11.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. He had a career-long streak of 18 straight games with double-digit rebounds, and he also has 26 double-doubles thus far, just 7 behind his career best with another 30 games to play. I think he’ll set that mark as well. The reason Jo has taken it to another level this season: his health. “Last year, around this time, I was in a lot of pain,” mentioned Noah. “My feet were hurting. I felt like my body was breaking down. I’m healthy right now. I couldn’t be happier about that.” His coach couldn’t be happier about it either. He shared his center’s opinion as to why he’s playing his best basketball.

“He’s healthy, he’s gotten into rhythm,” asserted coach Thibs. “I think missing training camp set him back offensively. Defensively he’s been terrific all year, then offensively, I’d say the last 25 games or so, he’s been in a great rhythm. He’s doing a lot of great things for us and making plays. He’s comfortable on the perimeter; he’s comfortable in the post, dribble-handoffs, the pick-and-roll. [He has] the ability to make a quick decision, to read what the defense is doing-where’s the help coming from, where’s the open guy? So he’s making quick decisions and it forces the defense to run, and when you do that you’re going to get good shots. So, he’s running the floor and he’s playing great basketball right now. He and Taj have been terrific up front.”

The numbers support the coach’s assertion about Noah’s hot streak. Since the team hit rock bottom at 9-16, Noah has averaged a ridiculous 12.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists over 26 games. Those are All-NBA 1st team type numbers for a center. Handling Joakim is enough of a handful for most teams, but when you throw in the way Taj Gibson is playing this season, the Bulls’ frontcourt just becomes overwhelming. Taj has always been a nightmare to deal with on the glass and as a defender, but the quantum leap he’s made on the offensive end is astonishing. Gibson’s numbers have been excellent. He’s averaging 12.9 points per game, almost 4 points better than his previous career-high (and with just 8 starts in 52 games), and he’s shooting 72.5% from the foul line, easily the best mark of his career. The numbers don’t do him justice though. When you watch him play, it’s obvious just how far his offensive game has come.

“I’ve come a long way,” ceded Gibson after the win over the Hawks. “It’s tough when you come from college to the NBA; guys are really physical. I had to add a lot of weight to my body. I worked on my post game and my jump shot. There are things that you need to work on in the NBA, but the main thing is confidence. You can work out 100 hours a day, but without confidence it’s nothing.” Coach Thibodeau and the Bulls have helped build up Taj’s confidence, and it’s paying major dividends for the team. At this point, it’s hard to argue that Taj shouldn’t be starting ahead of Carlos Boozer. In his 8 games as a starter, Taj is averaging 19.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.8 bgp, and is shooting 49.6% from the field. Although Thibs isn’t ready to make Taj his starter, he couldn’t help but heap praise on Taj as he explained why Boozer will continue to start:

“For us to achieve the things we want to achieve, we need Carlos and we need Carlos to play well. He’s a huge part of our team. With our depth up front, we really have 3 starters, and they all have to sacrifice for the team. That’s one of our strengths. That’s also the value of Taj. I know Taj can play great as a starter and I know he can play great coming off the bench. It doesn’t take him 5 minutes to get going and get adjusted. As soon as you put him in his motor is running and he is ready to roll. Taj can play short minutes or he can play long consecutive minutes. He’s in great shape and has prepared himself well. You can’t say enough about all the things he’s doing for us. He’s hitting his jump shot; he’s posting with strength; he’s commanding the double-team; he’s hitting the open man; he’s guarding every position on the floor; he’s making great effort; he plays for the team. Did I leave anything out?”

I can’t say that I agree with Thibodeau’s decision to continue to start Boozer over Taj, but I do think he’s well aware of the impact Gibson has had on the team’s fortunes. There have been contributions from just about everyone on the roster, from D.J. to Hinrich to Butler to Dunleavy to Boozer, but it’s the play of Joakim and Taj that have made the difference. The inside presence they provide opens the game up for everyone else. It’s why the team has had such balanced scoring, and it’s why they’ve gotten back to their winning ways. The second half of the season won’t be easy. The team is still short-handed, and won’t be getting back Derrick Rose or Luol Deng any time this season, but just like the past couple Bulls’ teams under Thibodeau, this group doesn’t seem to want things to come easy.

“We’re enjoying the grind,” mentioned Noah. “I like our mindset going into every game. There’s a toughness about us and I’m proud to be a part of that.” If they can keep that mental edge, the Bulls will be just fine in the second half and should find themselves comfortably in the top 4 teams in the East. I’m not delusional enough to think that this team is going to beat Miami or Indiana in the playoffs, but I have no interest in writing off this iteration of the Chicago Bulls just yet. With the way these guys play for each other and battle through adversity, anything is possible in the postseason. That’s why they play the games. It’ll take everyone if the Bulls want to shock the world, but without the exploits of Jo and Taj, we’d still be talking tanking.

The Bulls 2013-14 campaign has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride thus far. There have been some pretty excruciating lows with the injury of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland, but Monday night’s game against the L.A. Lakers was certainly a high point. The teams battled back and forth all night and seemed destined for double-overtime, but Taj Gibson and the Bulls needed just 0.9 seconds to change that destiny. Coach Thibodeau drew up the perfect inbound play and Mike Dunleavy was able to find Taj Gibson headed straight to the basket for a game-winning layup that left his hand a tenth of a second before the horn sounded. “They drew up a great play,” commented Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni. “It was designed well and they executed it well.” After hitting the biggest shot of the night, Gibson was predictably all smiles. “Thibs just wanted me to attack the basket, try to dunk it or try to get fouled,” explained Taj. “He told me ‘use your left,’ and they [the team] always try to crack jokes on me in practice about trying to use my left and today I proved them wrong. It was my first buzzer beater and it feels good.”

The Bulls’ 102-100 victory was their was their 8th win in 10 games since the calendar turned to 2014, and it got them back to a .500 record (20-20) for the first time since November 27th. The Bulls’ season seemed to be spiraling out of control after D-Rose’s injury as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games after he was injured (counting the game he was hurt in). Luckily, they managed to find a dynamic point guard to replace Marquis Teague as the backup and help get the season back on the rails. D.J. Augustin spent much of the last season and a half riding the pine in Indiana and Toronto after a promising start to his NBA career in Charlotte. The Bulls took a chance on D.J. after he was waived by the Raptors last month, and the move has paid big dividends. After some predictable growing pains in his first few games as a Bull (Chicago lost first 4 games after acquiring D.J.), the team and Augustin have really hit their stride of late.

D.J. entered Monday’s tilt with L.A. averaging 16.2 points, 7.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals over his past 5 games, and he had his biggest game of the year on Monday. Augustin set a season-high with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting (5-of-7 from 3), and chipped in 4 assists and 4 rebounds. He hit several clutch 3’s down the stretch and his recent play is a big part of the reason the Bulls’ season has turned around. When D.J. was asked why he’s played so much better in Chicago than he did in Toronto, his answer was a simple one: “I’m getting an opportunity. When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years in Indiana and Toronto, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I get an opportunity, I think I play pretty good.” As long as Augustin keeps playing the way he’s been lately, the opportunities will continue to come, but he wasn’t the only Bull who was really impressive on Monday night.

Monday was the final day for fan voting for the NBA All-Star Game, and Bulls’ center Joakim Noah made a pretty strong case for himself to anyone who was voting at the last minute. Noah was already having another standout season, but the way he controlled the paint against L.A. was a joy to watch. Jo ended the game with 17 points, 21 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. He also smothered Pau Gasol in the overtime period and forced him into 1-of-4 shooting and 2 turnovers in the extra session. “Joakim battled the whole game,” gushed Thibs after the game. “Gasol is such a tough matchup and the Lakers spread you out with their shooting. Jo is doing a lot of different things. You’re asking him to make three, four, five efforts and then get back into the post. You can’t say enough about what he’s doing for our team.” I think an All-Star selection would be a good start. Noah clearly has earned it.

The Lakers came out shooting well early against Chicago, connecting on better than 50% of their first half field goal attempts and 43% of their 3’s as they built a 3-point halftime lead. In the second half, the game turned into more of a slugfest. Neither team ever really took control of the game, but the Bulls seemed to be in position to win in regulation. They were up 3 with the ball but turned it over out of bounds with 10.7 seconds to go. Nick Young managed to get fouled by Joakim Noah on a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left and hit all three from the charity stripe to force the overtime period. In the extra frame, the Lakers built a 5-point lead early on, but D.J. Augustin hit a 3 to tie it up with 2:33 to go. In the closing seconds of OT, it appeared that Nick Young had again extended the game with a baseline jumper to tie it up with 6 seconds left, but all he did was set the stage for Taj’s game-winner.

Gibson finished the game with 12 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks. Mike Dunleavy scored a quiet 12 points, and Jimmy Butler did a nice job stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and a block. The only thing the Bulls didn’t do well on Monday night is shoot the ball, knocking down a paltry 38.2% of their field goal tries. If they had shot the ball a little better, they likely would have won comfortably. Nick Young paced the Lakers with a game and season-high 31 points. It was the second straight game that Young set a season-high in points after serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch at a Suns’ player (Goran Dragic). Young scored 29 on Sunday against Toronto. Pau Gasol also had a strong game for L.A. despite his shaky overtime performance. The tall Spaniard finished with 20 points, 19 rebounds, 5 blocks, 3 steals and 5 turnovers. Most of the turnovers were costly though, with 4 of them coming in the game’s final 10 minutes.

For the Lakers (16-26), the loss was nothing new. Los Angeles has dropped 13 of their last 16 games after a 13-13 start. The problem has been health. L.A. has been playing without Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake, which leaves them with a rotation featuring Pau Gasol and a bunch of kids. Nick Young and Gasol are the only regulars over 26 years old, and Young is 28. The Lakers have certainly shown more fight over the past few games, but until the vets get back it’ll be all about developing the youngsters for L.A. The recent addition of Manny Harris from the L.A. D-Fenders of the D-League could provide a spark. Harris was averaging 30.6 points per game for the D-Fenders in 13 games.

Unlike the Lakers, the Bulls’ recent strong play seems sustainable. They’ve finally dug themselves out of the hole created by the post D-Rose slump. The addition of Augustin and his rapidly increasing chemistry with the rest of the team have the Bulls looking like a team to be reckoned with again. I’m not saying that they can hang with Indiana or Miami in a playoff series, but I don’t think there’s any other team in the East that they aren’t capable of beating. If they hadn’t traded Deng, they might even have been able to give the Heat or Pacers all they could handle. It’s finally becoming fun to watch the Bulls play again this season, because let’s face it, Bulls games were pretty ugly for a while there. I’m excited to see how the rest of the season plays out. There might be a couple more deals coming next month at the trade deadline, but I doubt the Bulls do anything drastic. Speaking of Bulls’ deals, Chicago heads to Cleveland Wendesday night to take on Luol Deng and the Cavs.

It’ll be the first time that Deng will play against the Bulls in his career, and you can bet there will be some emotion involved. Many of the Bulls looked to Deng as a friend and mentor, so facing off against him will be a different experience. “I love Lu,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “I’ve learned so much from that guy. It’s going to be a weird feeling looking at him in the opposite jersey.” It might be even tougher for coach Tom Thibodeau, who hasn’t been shy in the past about heaping praise on his now former star forward. “I know how fierce a competitor he is,” explained Thibs, “so I know he’s going to be trying to beat us, and we’re going to be trying to beat him, and then after the game we’re going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him, all the stuff he did for us, what he did for me personally, but that friendship aside, we’re coming up there and we’re going to be ready.” We’ll find out Wednesday just how ready the Bulls are to face Lieutenant Deng. It should be a good one.

The group of men who have been chosen first overall in the NBA draft is an elite fraternity. They almost always walk into a broken down team with an entire franchise and city’s hope resting squarely on their shoulders. Not everyone has lived up to the expectations that come with the territory. For every LeBron James there’s a Greg Oden. For every Allen Iverson there’s a Kwame Brown. Monday night at the United Center, two men who have thrived as top overall picks squared off for the first time in their burgeoning careers. Any hype swirling around Monday’s Bulls-Cavs game focused on the showdown between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, but both players struggled to make their impact felt. It was the Bulls’ defense that took center stage down the stretch in a 96-81 Chicago win.

The strong finish was a welcome sight for Bulls’ fans, who have watched the team be badly outplayed down the stretch in losses to Indiana and Philadelphia. It’s safe to take your finger away from the panic button now that the team has pulled back to .500 at 3-3. Rose certainly ended up with the better statistical night of he and Irving, but the real hero of the matchup was the Bulls’ team defense on Kyrie. Irving ended with a respectable line of 16 points and 4 assists, but he shot just 5-of-19 from the floor and committed 3 turnovers. He didn’t make his first field goal until the final minute of the 3rd quarter. “Every time I’ve played against the Bulls, Coach Thibodeau just does an excellent job of corralling me into a little bit of space,” explained Irving, “and they do a great job of loading up and making it tough on me.” Derrick Rose echoed that sentiment, mentioning that, “It’s really not me going out there and trying to play him a certain way. It’s the team.”

Despite a somewhat lopsided final score, Chicago really struggled to put the Cavs away in this game. They played from ahead for the majority of the game, but every time it seemed like the Bulls were on the cusp of breaking it open, the Cavaliers would do just enough to stay in striking distance. In the first quarter, the Bulls got up by 6, but C.J Miles drilled a triple in the closing seconds of the quarter to cut it to 3. In the 2nd quarter, the Bulls pushed the lead all the way to 12, but Dion Waiters cut it back down to 7 with back-to-back buckets in the final minute of the half. A Jimmy Butler layup at the buzzer pushed it back to 9 at the break. The 3rd quarter was more of the same. The Bulls came out hot and got in an offensive rhythm, building up a 13-point lead 4 minutes into the half, but the offense sputtered after that, allowing Cleveland to creep back in once more. Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum got going with 10 combined points on a 16-8 Cavs run that cut the lead to 5. The spurt carried over into the 4th with Kyrie Irving heating up, and Cleveland got within 1 at 68-67 with 10 minutes to go. They were never able to get over the hump and take the lead, however.

Cleveland had 2 chances with the ball down just 1, and failed on both opportunities. First it was a Kyrie Irving miss from 6 feet, then an Anderson Varejao offensive foul that stymied the Cavs’ efforts. That was the last chance the Cavs would get to pull ahead. Carlos Boozer knocked down a midrange jumper to open the lead to 3, then after a Chicago stop Mike Dunleavy managed to get fouled on a 3-pointer and knocked down all three shots from the charity stripe. The next couple minutes turned into the Rose and Dunleavy show. Rose made 2 explosive layups and Dunleavy knocked down a couple big shots including one from beyond the arc and another 2 shots from the free throw line as the lead ballooned to 11. Rose’s second layup sent him to the bench with a tweaked hamstring, but it didn’t matter in this game. The damage was done. The Bulls managed to hold on for a 15-point win.

The Bulls’ 4th quarter dominance came in 2 areas: on the defensive end and on the glass. They held the Cavs to just 6-of-19 shooting for the quarter and outrebounded them 14 to 6. They also turned 4 Cleveland turnovers into 8 points. The shooting of Dunleavy was a big plus, but the Bulls simply smothered the Cavs on the defensive end. This is exactly what Bulls’ fans are used to seeing. The defense dominates one end of the floor, and Rose dominates the other. One out of two isn’t bad while Rose rounds back into form, and he doesn’t seem that far away. Cavs’ coach Mike Brown wasn’t pleased with the way his young team handled Chicago’s defensive pressure. “When we hit adversity tonight, we didn’t handle it well,” lamented Coach Brown. “Chicago got up in us. They tried to take us out of our stuff. We hit a little bit of adversity and we didn’t do a good job of handling it. Mentally and physically they just did what they wanted to with us.”

For the night, the overall numbers weren’t all that lopsided aside from the final score. Both teams shot around 41%, the Bulls were +3 on the glass and both teams scored 16 2nd chance points. The one area the Cavs were demolished was in turnovers and points off them. Chicago scored 29 points off 20 Cleveland turnovers, and the Cavaliers scored just 9 off of 11 Bulls’ TOs. “We just didn’t execute,” mentioned Cavs’ guard Jarrett Jack in reference to the turnover struggles. “We need to learn like in baseball to hit singles and not go for homerun passes all the time.”

Tristan Thompson led the way statistically for Cleveland, tallying 14 points and 13 rebounds. It was Thompson’s 5th double-double in 8 games this season. Kyrie Irving did lead the team with his 16 points, but it was Thompson’s play that kept the Cavs in the game in the 3rd and into the 4th. 2nd year guard Dion Waiters was the worst offender in terms of turnovers with 6 on the night, but he did add 13 points, 2 boards, 2 assists and 2 blocks. C.J. Miles scored 9 points off the bench and Anderson Varejao scored 5 and grabbed 6 rebounds. Matthew Dellavedova scored his first 2 NBA points in the game, and struggling number-1 pick Anthony Bennett was left on the bench in this one. Bennett has made just 1 field goal thus far in his young career.

The biggest surprise from Cleveland on Monday night was the play of Andrew Bynum. In a little bit of gamesmanship on the part of Mike Brown, Bynum wasn’t announced as a starter until right before tipoff, and Cleveland tried to get him going quickly. They fed him in the post early and he scored 7 of their first 10 points, but it was clear that his knees are still a bit of an issue. He was limited to just 21 minutes for the game, and didn’t play at all in the 2nd or 4th quarters. Bynum ended up with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists, but also committed 3 turnovers, 2 of which were bad miscommunications in which he threw the ball to no one. It will take some time for him to get adjusted to playing with his new team. “We just don’t know how to play with a guy like that yet,” commented Brown. “Every time he touched the ball on the block, something good happened. When they double-teamed, he kicked the ball out for a 3. I’d love to establish him down low, and that’s what we wanted to do tonight.” We’re just 6 games into the season, so the Cavs have time to adjust to the big man, but it will all hinge on the health of Bynum’s knees. He did say he was contemplating retirement a couple weeks ago.

The Bulls were paced offensively on Monday by Carlos Boozer’s 17 points. Boozer has been much more consistent on the offensive end than Bulls’ fans have been used to, averaging 18 points a game (his highest mark as a Bull). He shot 7-of-11 for the game and added 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Luol Deng struggled with his shot but still scored 12 points and added 5 boards and 3 dimes. Joakim Noah was limited by foul trouble, but still wound up with 10 points, 6 boards and 3 steals. The bench made a big impact in this one as well. Taj Gibson (9 pts, 8 boards, 3 blocks) and Kirk Hinrich (6 pts, 3 boards, 7 assists) made several clutch plays, but the bench star in this one was Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy scored 15 points (10 in the 4th), grabbed 4 rebounds and dished out 2 assists. His big shots in the 4th were the key to Chicago blowing the game open, and it was fitting since his college coach (Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski) and his Duke players were in the building watching. Boozer and Deng also played their college ball at Duke. Dunleavy seems to be finding his niche with this team quickly.

As for the Derrick Rose, his stat line wasn’t overwhelming. He scored 16 points on 8-of-21 shooting, but he had a season-high 7 assists and more importantly, a season-low zero turnovers in the Bulls’ victory. He was starting to flash the speed and explosiveness that make him the star that he is when his night was derailed by a tweaked hamstring. Rose was pulled with 3:15 to go, but it seems to be more of a precaution. Coach Thibodeau said that “it appears to be minor,” and Derrick agreed in his postgame comments. “Just a minor sprain, nothing serious,” explained Rose. When asked if he expected to be ready to play Friday, Derrick answered: “I should be. It’s really not that big at all.” The injury took a little bit of the thunder out of the D-Rose vs. Kyrie matchup, but they will certainly square off again.

Cleveland appears to be on the right track as a team. In a very top-heavy Eastern Conference, they should be able to find their way to a playoff spot over some lackluster competition, but the key to getting there will be integrating Bynum and keeping him healthy. It’s amazing that this team might not need much of a contribution from the number 1 overall pick to make the playoffs, but that is the case right now. Kyrie and Dion Waiters are an imposing backcourt, and when they go small and bring in Jarrett Jack along with those 2, it’s very difficult to match up with. They also have great versatility in the frontcourt with Thompson, Varejao and Alonzo Gee along with Bynum, but it all depends on health. Varejao missed most of last season, Irving has had his own injury issues, and Bynum’s struggles are well documented. One thing the Cavs aren’t short on is confidence, at least as far as their point guard is concerned. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” asserted Irving. “We’re all basketball players here. It’s what we get paid to do, so we’ve got to figure it out, and we will.” I agree with Kyrie and fully believe the Cavs will still be playing beyond 82 games.

As far as Chicago is concerned, it’s nice to get back to .500, but that is obviously not the goal. Everyone in the locker room was spitting out the same company line about improvement. “The big thing is to concentrate on our improvement,” mentioned Thibs. “We’ve got to just keep improving,” claimed Joakim. The Bulls are never satisfied after a win, and that’s a good thing. They managed to clean up the turnover issues that have been plaguing them, even if only for one game, but in order to keep piling up wins they know they need to continue to work and to get better. The upcoming schedule is daunting, with 7 of their next 9 games on the road. Things are starting to come together, but they need to show an ability to put together a full 48 minutes of good basketball. They played Indy even for 3 quarters before getting crushed in the 4th. They were dominating Philly into the 3rd before falling apart. They were crushed by Miami in the 2nd quarter. They have to start playing more consistently from start to finish in each game.

“We’ve just got to stick with it,” mentioned Dunleavy when asked when the team would be able to put together a full 48 minutes. “It’s not an easy thing to do, probably the toughest thing to do in this league. There are a lot of great teams, so to think you’re going to go out and put it on people for 48 minutes every night….You’d like to do that, but it’s not maybe realistic. We’ve just got to keep grinding at it, keep thinking we’re going to do it. We will.” With drill sergeant Thibs in charge and Derrick Rose rounding into form, I’d expect the Bulls to start putting full games together sooner than later. The league better take their shots at the Bulls while they can. The D-Rose revival tour is coming. Soon.

In case you haven’t been watching, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat don’t like each other very much. Chicago, still down Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose, is severely outgunned by the defending champion Heat, but they haven’t backed down. They play with what Bulls’ TV announcer Stacy King likes to call heart, hustle and muscle to win games, and it’s allowed them to be competitive when they shouldn’t, but it wasn’t enough to win on Friday night. The Bulls battled Miami all night, but Miami was able to hit shots down the stretch and pull away for a 104-94 victory and 2-1 series lead. LeBron James scored a game-high 25 points, but it wasn’t his best outing as he shot just 6-for-17. The real stars for the Heat were Chris Bosh who put up 20 and 19 rebounds, and Norris Cole who scored 18 points off the bench on 6-of-7 shooting. Carlos Boozer led the way for Chicago with 21 points, but every Bulls’ starter scored at least 15. “Tonight we didn’t play particularly well,” asserted Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, “and a lot of that had to do with Chicago, but in the 4th quarter we just found a way. Even if it wasn’t the prettiest way, just found a way to get this win.” Spoelstra was right that it wasn’t pretty. In fact, this one seemed like it was teetering on the brink of an all-out brawl.

There’s always been tension between the Heat and Bulls, going back to the Eastern Conference Finals 2 years ago, but it’s escalated to new heights in this series. During the regular season, the Bulls ended Miami’s franchise record 27-game winning streak, and league MVP LeBron James took exception to Chicago’s physical play, commenting that some of the fouls weren’t “basketball plays.” That physical play continued to frustrate King James and company in game 1 as the Bulls stole the series opener in Miami. In game 2, however, the Heat decided to get physical themselves. Udonis Haslem set the tone on the game’s first play, practically tackling Nate Robinson in mid-air as he drove in for a layup. Miami started to use the passion that the shorthanded Bulls have to play with against them, using cheap shots and hard fouls to bait the Bulls into technical fouls and ejections as the game spiraled out of control on the scoreboard. In total, by the end of game 2, there were 9 technical fouls (6 on Chicago), 1 flagrant foul (Chris Andersen), and 2 ejections (Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) as the Heat dealt Chicago a franchise playoff worst 37-point loss. It was an embarrassing showing for the Bulls, and they vowed to keep their composure and deliver a better performance in game 3. That composure lasted for about 1 quarter.

In the closing seconds of the first frame, Chris “Birdman” Andersen took his time getting off of Nate Robinson after a hard foul by Andersen sent both to the floor, so Joakim Noah decided to help him out. Noah grabbed Birdman by the arm and threw him off of Robinson, and Andersen responded by attempting to kick Noah in the leg but whiffed. Both teams rushed in to separate the two, and Joakim was hit with a technical foul, but the bad blood didn’t end there. Early in the 2nd, an Andersen block started a fast break for Miami, and Bulls’ backup center Nazr Mohammed wrapped up LeBron in the open floor to prevent an easy bucket. LeBron didn’t like it and threw Nazr off of him. James was instantly T’d up by referee Joey Crawford, but before he could even react to it, he was shoved to the ground by Mohammed. The Bulls appeared to be unraveling again. Nazr was ejected, but after the dust settled, Chicago was finally able to get focused back in on the game.

For all of the theatrics, the actual game was riveting. The storylines practically write themselves. The depleted Bulls, missing 3 of their team leaders, continue to go toe-to-toe with the big bad Miami Heat and their 3 superstars. Even Hollywood would have a hard time crafting a better underdog story. The difference is, in Hollywood the underdog usually wins. For three and a half quarters Friday night, the Bulls answered every punch Miami threw at them, and they were within 2 points with 4 minutes to play. In those final minutes though, a couple of dicey calls and two clutch 3-pointers helped the Heat put Chicago away. Noah was whistled for a loose ball foul that looked extremely questionable on replay while going for an offensive rebound with the team down 5. Instead of a chance to cut the lead back to 2 or 3, the Heat opened it to 7 at the free throw line. The Bulls answered with a Belinelli 3, but moments later LeBron hit a ridiculous fade away 3 as the shot clock expired, and Norris Cole splashed in a 3 on the next possession, and that was all she wrote. The Bulls missed their last 3 shots and LeBron put the game away at the foul line.

Despite the very competitive game, all the talk afterwards was about the Nazr push and the officiating. “From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop,” mentioned Coach Thibodeau about the push. “I don’t think it warranted an ejection. A flagrant foul, I understand that, but an ejection, no. I watch some of the plays with Haslem and Andersen, and I just don’t get it.” The coach said after game 2 that his team needed to show more composure, but when asked if he was upset with Nazr and Jo for their technicals in game 3, he didn’t give the response I’d expect: “No. I see how things are going. I watch very closely, and what I’m seeing….We’ll adjust accordingly.” For his comments, Thibs was fined $35,000 by the NBA, but he did take the focus off Nazr, who wasn’t suspended or fined for his push. Nazr did take the blame for his actions, but he agreed with his coach that he shouldn’t have been ejected: “I’m disappointed in myself because I let my teammates down, I could have been out there to help. Disappointed in myself also because my son was probably watching the game and I don’t want him to see that kind of behavior on the court, but I’m also disappointed that they went to the ejection for something like a push. I mean there’s so many plays that have happened already in this series, guys jumping on Nate’s face, guys tackle Marco Belinelli out of bounds, a guy takes out Nate on the 1st play of the game. There have been a lot of plays that didn’t get ejections, and a push shouldn’t get an ejection.” When pressed about how hard the push actually was, Mohammed was careful with his words. “You saw the play,” he responded. “You know the answer to that. You want me to say it.” He didn’t say it.

Miami’s conduct on the court wasn’t any better than Chicago’s, but since they won, it was much easier to take the high road off the court. Coach Spoelstra referred to the extracurricular activities as “inconsequential” to the game. “Out there (in the media), it will be more theater than it is reality,” commented Spoelstra. “Both teams are very competitive. It’s physical basketball, but no one wants to put on the gloves and turn it into anything else.” That may be the case, but from where I’m sitting, Miami’s goal seems to be to do just enough that the Bulls do want to put on the gloves and settle it like men and then act appalled by it. It’s worked pretty well for them in the last 2 games.

The Bulls have been walking a fine line in the first few games of this series. To be able to compete with Miami with such a short rotation, they have to play with great passion and energy. Unfortunately, playing that way makes them vulnerable to the emotional flare-ups that have resulted in technical fouls and ejections. The have to find a way to keep those emotions in check without losing that passion and competitive fire. Miami will continue to try and goad the Bulls into a fight, so Chicago needs to show how mentally tough they are to have a chance to stay in this series. With an 8-man rotation, ejections cannot happen, especially over things done by Haslem and Andersen, two guys who aren’t that critical to Miami’s chances.

If the Bulls are able to show a little bit more composure and focus down the stretch, they really have a chance to win game 4, and they need to. They did everything else in game 3 that you have to do to have a shot to beat Miami. They moved the ball exceptionally well all night, they limited their turnovers and Miami’s points off of them, they defended the paint well, and they frustrated LeBron into a bad shooting night, but down the stretch, they spent much of their energy arguing foul calls rather than finishing the game off strong. If they can correct that in game 4, there’s a chance for a happier ending. “We’re not worried about what the refs say or what they (the Heat) say,” asserted Nate Robinson. “We’ve just got to focus on playing Chicago basketball, which is hard, gritty and together. It’s (Game 4) a must-win for us, so we’ve got to continue to play. You can’t count us out because we’re going to continue to play hard, no matter what, and we’ll do whatever it takes to win.” The season hangs in the balance Monday night. Luol, Kirk and Derrick are probably not going to be on the court, so the underdog narrative remains as strong as ever. Hopefully game 4 provides the proper Hollywood ending that was missing on Friday.

               

Playing shorthanded is nothing new to the Chicago Bulls, they’ve been doing it all year. Injuries have been a bigger nemesis for Chicago than any opponent they’ve faced. Coach Tom Thibodeau has spent the better part of the last two seasons telling anyone who would listen that the Bulls have “more than enough to win with,” and often times his team has been able to prove him right. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Thursday night was not one of those times. Already missing Kirk Hinrich due to a calf injury, Thursday brought news that several other Bulls’ players were in jeopardy of missing game 6 due to illness. Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson were able to battle through the flu and play Thursday, but Luol Deng wasn’t as lucky. The All-Star small forward suffered from symptoms similar to meningitis and was unable to suit up and play. The Bulls who did take the floor battled tooth and nail to put the Nets away, but the absence of Kirk and Luol was just too much to overcome. Chicago played from behind all night. They kept within striking distance, but just couldn’t get over the hump as Brooklyn held on for a 95-92 win.

“It was kind of a bloodbath game, and fortunately we came out on top,” explained Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo. “If there’s a team in the league that plays harder than them, I don’t know who it is.” As hard as the Bulls played, it just wasn’t enough. Even with Kirk and Lu in the lineup, the Nets are more offensively talented than the Bulls. The games Chicago has been winning in this series aren’t being won by simply outscoring Brooklyn. They’re being won on the defensive end, and with grit and determination. Deng and Hinrich are crucial to that formula. “He (Deng) does so many things well at both ends of the floor,” commented Jimmy Butler. “He can just cover up for so many different people in a variety of ways, but more than anything, just his leadership role. He is missed.” Kirk’s impact is just as big. Hinrich has had the unenviable task of covering Deron Williams in the series, and actually did an admirable job of it in the games he played. He also keeps the offense running smoothly as the floor general. His absence was an obvious factor as Chicago struggled to communicate defensively and Brooklyn controlled the tempo in the early going.

On the Nets’ second possession, the Bulls starting backcourt of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli collided with one another trying to defend a screen. The play resulted in a Gerald Wallace 3-pointer. Chicago’s offense got off to a fast start, but the defense failed to set the tone they needed to. Brooklyn shot 13-for-20 (65%) in the first quarter, and scored the final 6 points of the quarter to lead 33-27 after 1. Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez each scored 10 points. It was the guards’ inability to limit D-Will and Johnson’s penetration that led to the big quarter. Noah and Boozer often had to help off of their guys on the blocks to cover the driving guards, and it led to some easy buckets for the Nets. The second quarter wasn’t much better. The thin bench started to show when Rip Hamilton and Marquis Teague got on the floor. Hamilton was rusty on offense missing on his only 2 shot attempts as the Nets’ lead went from 1 to 8 in the 3 minutes he was on the floor. Teague wasn’t much better, failing to switch on a screen that allowed C.J. Watson a wide open very long 2, and was immediately sent back to the bench. The poor play of those two made it pretty obvious the starters were going to play a LOT of minutes. Before the end of the first half, the Nets had built the lead to as much as 10, but Marco Belinelli scored 4 points in the final 30 seconds of the half to trail by six at the break, 60-54. Deron Williams got his scoring going with 10 points in the 2nd quarter.

The Bulls took control of the tempo in the second half. They came out with renewed energy on defense, and got back to playing physical, grinding defense. They struggled to score, but they absolutely shut down the Nets. Brooklyn shot just 4-for-19 in the 3rd, but still managed to hold a 4-point lead into the final quarter. Chicago continued to fight and battle throughout the 4th, but it just didn’t seem like it was meant to be. One tough break after another went against them. Down 5 early in the quarter, the Bulls had a stretch where they had 7 shots to try and close in, including 4 in one possession, and they missed them all. After the 7th miss (4th in that one possession), they were able to get enough of the rebound to get a jump ball. After winning the jump ball, Belinelli rushed up a 3-pointer before the offense had a chance to get set up, and off the miss, the Nets were able to push the ball up the floor and get a wide open triple of their own by Gerald Wallace to open the lead back to 8. The Bulls wouldn’t go away though. They fought back to within 2 a couple times, and were down 4 with 3 minutes to play when Nate Robinson seemed to be on his way to a fast break basket when he slipped and fell down. The Nets were able to tie him up for a jump ball against Reggie Evans, a jump he wasn’t going to win.

The jump ball turned out to be another break that went against the Bulls. Nate decided to do something only Nate would do, and attempted to simply let Evans tip the Ball and run around him and try to catch it wherever he tipped it to. That’s not legal, and Nate should know that since he was called for the same violation in a regular season game against Toronto. The worst part about his mistake is that it appeared that Carlos Boozer would have come up with the ball if Nate hadn’t tried to get it himself. Instead the ball was given to the Nets. Brooklyn continued to miss free throws down the stretch to keep Chicago in it, but time and time again, the Bulls failed to get over the hump and tie the game or take the lead. The Bulls got a couple of chances in the waning seconds. They were inbounding the ball with around 10 seconds to go, down by 3, and they called a play that’s known in basketball circles as “closing the fence,” where a player runs between screens set by two teammates who then pinch together to block any defenders from getting through to challenge the shooter. Unfortunately, Gerald Wallace got a hold of Marco Belinelli around his waist as he tried to run between the screeners, and he pulled Wallace through with him. It should have been a foul and Beli should have been on the free throw line, but it wasn’t called and Wallace was able to contest the shot and Marco missed it long. Joakim Noah was able to chase down the rebound with 6 seconds left, but he couldn’t stay in bounds. The Bulls weren’t quite finished yet. Noah was able to tie up Deron Williams on the inbounds pass and get a jump ball call with 3.6 seconds left, still down 3, but the Nets came up with the ball on the jump, and escaped with the win.

The most telling stat for the Bulls on Thursday was that they shot 0-for-7 with a chance to tie or take the lead in the second half. Robinson missed a couple layups that could have tied it in the 4th, but it’s hard to blame him considering he was vomiting on the sideline during the game. “It wasn’t there,” lamented Noah. “It’s hard because I know how hard we fought just to get in that position. We just couldn’t get over the hump. You just think about so many plays in the game and wish you could have them back, but that’s what it’s all about.” Noah gave another gutsy effort on his ailing foot, putting up 14 points, 15 rebounds (9 off.), 5 assists and 5 blocks. Nate Robinson scored 18 and Jimmy Butler scored 17 along with 7 boards and 6 assists while playing all 48 minutes. He was the first Bull to play all 48 minutes of a playoff game since Luol in 2007 against the Pistons. Carlos Boozer put up his 4th double-double of the series with 14 points and 13 rebounds. The Bulls real surprise came from Marco Belinelli, who was filling in for Deng. Marco scored a game-high 22 points while tying a career high with 7 assists. He served as a ball handler for much of the first half and allowed Nate to play off the ball. “I thought he did a very good job,” commented Thibs. “He did a lot of good things out there. He ran the pick and roll, shot the ball well, made plays…but not enough.”

Brooklyn’s big 3 all tallied 17 points for the winning side, and Gerald Wallace did a nice job as well with 15, including a couple of clutch 3-pointers. Reggie Evans didn’t score much (2 pts.), but provided his usual strong effort on the glass with 15 boards. Deron Williams had 11 assists to go along with his 17 points, and Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson chipped in 10 and 9, respectively. The free throw line had a chance to be Brooklyn’s real undoing in this game, as they shot just 13-for-23 from the charity stripe in the second half.

With game 6 in the rear view mirror, both teams now turn their focus to do-or-die game 7 in Brooklyn. The Nets have all the momentum and confidence in the series, but the Bulls aren’t going down without a fight. Unfortunately, they are likely to be shorthanded again for game 7. Hinrich seems to be improving and might find a way to play Saturday, but it doesn’t look good for Deng. Luol said that he felt as weak as he ever has Thursday after having a spinal tap procedure performed on Wednesday, in which fluid was drawn from his brain and back. He could barely get out of bed on game day. His symptoms worsened on Friday and he ended up back in the ER, leaving his status highly doubtful for the final game of the series. Regardless of who plays, the Bulls know what they have to do to win Saturday. The defense can’t wait until the second half to assert itself. The Bulls have to make this game physical early. If they let Brooklyn start out offensively the way they did in game 6, they won’t be able to slow them down, not in Brooklyn. I doubt the Bulls will change up the rotation much if Kirk doesn’t play, but the guys out there simply have to play better. If they can make this a slugfest, there’s no reason they can’t beat the Nets. They have certainly shown over the first 6 games that they are the mentally tougher team, but that doesn’t guarantee victory.

“We need one great game, and that’s all we’re thinking about,” mentioned coach Thibs. “I know we are capable of doing well against them, so we’re going to have to play our best game and I believe we will.” The Bulls have handled adversity all season long, so why should the playoffs be any different? They always find a way to show up for the most important games, and I don’t doubt they’ll show up ready to go Saturday. Neither does Joakim Noah. “We’re a team of fighters,” Noah proclaimed. “We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team. We’re going into a hostile environment in Brooklyn, and we’re going to win.” Isn’t that the kind of guy you want leading your team into a do-or-die game? Win or lose, Bulls fans should be proud of the effort this team has put forward this year, but it’ll be a hell of a lot better if they win.

Over the course of this NBA season, Bulls fans have become acquainted with two different players who wear #2 for their team, good Nate Robinson and bad Nate Robinson. Good Nate is instant firepower. He plays within the flow of the offense, gives a good effort on the defensive end, and gets the home crowd fired up with his energy and scoring. Bad Nate forces his shot, often early in the shot clock, turns the ball over with silly passes, and gets a little sloppy with his defense. Bulls’ fans know all too well that it isn’t rare to see both Nates make an appearance in the same game, heck even in the same quarter, but there was no split personality disorder from Nate on Saturday. In fact, Nate was more than just good, he was downright heroic in leading the Bulls back from what seemed like a sure defeat to take a stranglehold of the series.

The Nets led the game by 14 with 3 minutes to play when Nate and the Bulls’ defense took over. The defense started getting stops, and Nate went on a personal 12-0 run against Brooklyn to get the Bulls back in the game. He hit a 3, then a layup, then a midrange jumper and the lead was down to 7. Then he got fouled on a triple and hit all 3 free throws, and moments later he hit another midrange jumper to cap his run and get the lead all the way down to 2. He wasn’t quite done yet. He made another huge play by forcing a 5-second violation on the following inbounds play, then assisted on a Boozer layup to get the Bulls all the way back to a tie game at 109 with 55 seconds left. After a pair of Brook Lopez free throws, it was Joakim Noah putting back a Luol Deng miss with 24 ticks remaining to pull even again. The Nets had one final chance to win in regulation, but Jimmy Butler blocked Gerald Wallace’s shot to force OT.

“Nate Robinson brought us back,” mentioned Carlos Boozer afterwards, “We got a stop and we got the ball to Nate. We got a stop and we got the ball to Nate. He carried us. He was amazing.” What Robinson did in the 4th quarter bordered on historic. He scored 23 points in the quarter on 9-of-11 shooting. The franchise record for points in a quarter is 24, by the incomparable Michael Jordan. Despite Nate’s heroics in the 4th, the game had to continue, but the tide in the building had certainly turned.

In overtime, the teams traded buckets for most of the 5 minute period, but with just 2 seconds to go, it was Robinson again, knocking down a ridiculous, off-balance 23-foot bank shot that appeared to clinch the victory, but the Nets answered. Out of a timeout, Brooklyn was able to inbound to Joe Johnson and the Bulls allowed him to waltz into the lane for an 8-foot runner to force another overtime. The second extra session was painful to watch. Both sides were noticeably gassed, settling for jumpers and missing them short. Nate Robinson fouled out during the period for Chicago, as did Gerald Wallace for the Nets. It was going to be on the rest of the team to pull this one out after Nate had saved them. Chicago got up by 4 with under a minute and a half to go, but again couldn’t hold it and Brooklyn pulled even one more time. Joakim had a couple looks to try and win it in the closing seconds, but couldn’t convert. The game was headed to overtime number 3.

In the 3rd and final extra period, Chicago finally took charge. Noah and Gibson fouled out, but the Bulls scored 6 of the first 7 points, and never let Brooklyn get it closer than 3 after that. Old man Nazr Mohammed, who was forced back into the action when Gibson fouled out, made two crucial buckets to seal the win, including a put-back off a Boozer missed free throw with just 20 seconds left in a 4-point game. The bucket put them up 6, and that was finally enough to end this game.

When the actual ‘final’ buzzer of the day sounded, the Bulls had pulled off a 142-134 victory to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Robinson ended with a game-high 34 points (29 after the start of the 4th), and left the United Center crowd with the feeling they had just seen something really special. “It was big shot after big shot,” effused Coach Thibodeau. “But that’s what he does. That’s what makes him so valuable. It doesn’t take him much to get going, and once he does he can have a great run.” The biggest key for Robinson is just how incredibly confident he is. “I always think I’m on fire,” asserted Nate. “It’s like in the old-school game ‘NBA Jam,’ when you make a couple the rim’s on fire, when you shoot the ball’s on fire. I feel like that all the time. You kind of have to lie to yourself, feel like you can’t miss. If you do that, things turn.” It was that attitude that turned this game for Chicago, and maybe won them this series, and it almost didn’t happen.

The Nets had an opportunity to put the game away down the stretch when they were up 14. With 3:20 to go in the game, Nate coughed up the ball in the midst of a 7-0 Brooklyn run. It was passed ahead to C.J. Watson, who was by himself. No Bulls hustled back. It almost looked like it was going to be a ‘throw in the towel’ moment. Lucky for the Bulls, Watson went up for a dunk instead of the conventional layup, and the ball rattled around and popped out. By the time Watson realized it and secured the rebound, Jimmy Butler was back to prevent an easy bucket. The possession ended with a foul, but Reggie Evans missed both free throws, and the Nate show started. Nets’ coach P.J. Carlesimo lamented about just how big that miscue was: “I don’t think it would be possible to overstate it. They turned the ball over and we got a breakaway to get it to 16. I mean there was nobody even in the picture. That’s not good judgment on our part.” Unfortunately for Brooklyn and C.J. Watson, the game unfolded the way it did and they return home needing a win.

Nate Robinson had the breathtaking performance of the day, but every Bull that saw the floor made an impact. Before Nate’s explosion, Kirk Hinrich was actually leading the team in scoring with 18 points (he finished with 18), and he tacked on 14 assists and 3 steals while playing 60 of the game’s 63 minutes. Even more impressive, he played the game’s final 20:37 with 5 fouls and guarded the Nets’ best player, Deron Williams, all game. “Don’t underestimate the game Kirk Hinrich played tonight,” mentioned Boozer. “He scored the ball for us when he had to, he got everyone involved when he had to and played amazing defense.” Coach Thibodeau called Kirk’s game “unbelievable.” Unfortunately, it took a toll on him, and he will miss game 5 with a bruised thigh. As for the rest of the Bulls, Carlos Boozer scored 21 and grabbed 8 rebounds, while Deng added 15 and 8 along with 6 assists. Jimmy Butler had a nice shooting game (6-of-8) and scored 16 points, while Taj and Nazr chipped in 10 and 9 points off the bench, respectively.

The gutsiest performance of the day undoubtedly came from Joakim Noah. Noah’s been battling a foot injury, and was supposed to be limited to 20-25 minutes in this contest. He wound up playing 39 before fouling out with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks. “He has a great heart, and again he is sort of mucking through it,” explained Thibs. “He keeps going after every ball. He has an uncanny knack for getting to the ball late (in games), so it was a big time effort by him. He’s doing it on will.” Hopefully Noah’s extended minutes don’t cause any setbacks with his injury going forward, but I highly doubt Jo would have let Thibs take him out of this game.

For Brooklyn, the offense revolved around their big 3 as usual. Deron Williams led the Nets with 32 points and 10 assists, but also had a game-high 7 turnovers. Brook Lopez scored 26, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 4 shots, and Joe Johnson added 22 points. Reggie Evans posted a double-double with 15 points and 13 boards, and Gerald Wallace nearly had one with 17 and 9. The Nets’ stats provided them with little solace after the deflating loss. “When all is said and done, we did not do enough things to get a win,” explained Carlesimo. “We couldn’t get enough stops when we needed to get stops.”

Game 4 played out much differently than the previous 2 victories in the series for the Bulls. In games 2 and 3, the Bulls won ugly, low-scoring, grind out type of games. The Nets scored 82 and 76 points in those contests. In game 4, it was all offense, which would seem to favor the Nets, but Chicago was able to find a way to win. ”Obviously we’d like to play better defense,” mentioned Boozer, “but you’ve got to win different ways, especially in the playoffs.” The Bulls outshot the Nets, 53% to 49% on Saturday, illustrating just how bad the defenses were. “For two teams that are supposed to be pretty good defensively, it was a shootout, and not just because it was overtime,” stated P.J. “Neither of us did a good job stopping each other.” The big difference was that the Bulls were able to get stops when they needed them, even if it was the Nets stopping themselves.

There was no shortage of feel-good stories for Chicago, from Nate to Kirk to Joakim, but the biggest story is that they end up 1 step closer to round 2. If the miraculous comeback didn’t happen, the Nets would be in pretty good position. They would essentially have a best-of-3 series with 2 home games. Instead, the Bulls have Brooklyn on the ropes. Even if the Nets are able to beat the Hinrich-less Bulls at the Barclays Center on Monday, they get to come back to the United Center and deal with a rabid crowd that was fantastic for game 4. I’m sure the Bulls will be looking for the knockout blow on the road, and why shouldn’t they? So far they’ve dominated the series in a new statistic that White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson invented: The will to win. It won’t be easy. The Nets will be desperate. As coach P.J. Carlesimo said, “When you get to the elimination game, you put the uniforms away or you get to play another day.” We’ll see which one on Monday.

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