The Chicago Bulls have been playing the last few games sans the services of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, Most Improved Player of the Year candidate Jimmy Butler and super-sub Taj Gibson, and that’ll continue for some time. The notion surrounding this team has been two words: tread water.
Last night against Philly (Joakim Noah missed this game as well with knee soreness), it essentially took a miraculous heave from downtown out of the hands of Aaron Brooks with 33 seconds left to end Chicago’s three-game losing streak. The game eventually went to an overtime period after Philly failed in its two attempts to win the game at the end of regulation. But after that shot by Brooks, or maybe after the near catastrophic turnover by Tony Snell, the Bulls realized something that should have been conspicuous coming into the game – they’re 25 games better than the Sixers in the standings and that game shouldn’t have been close, even with the injuries.
The Bulls cruised to a 104-95 win after outscoring the Sixers 12-3 in the overtime period, but it took all of Brooks’s 31 points and Pau Gasol’s 27 points and 16 rebounds to get the Bulls back into the win column. Nikola Mirotic, who has been playing exceptionally well of late, poured in 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Coming into the season, the Bulls were my pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. This was obviously predicated on my belief that Rose would be healthy for the entire season, and that the impressive offseason they had would manifest itself. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gasol was the biggest signing of the offseason, outside of the return home of LeBron James to Cleveland.
Gasol has talked about how good it felt to not be a participant in trade rumors for the first time in what felt like forever. And so far this season, he has looked revitalized, posting numbers of 18.2 points and a career-best 12.1 rebounds per game.
How can the Bulls make me look good by getting to the NBA Finals? Well, it begins and ends with the identity they’ve developed over the past few seasons. Under coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls had solidified themselves as a lockdown defensive team. Just last season, they were the NBA’s best defensive team, only surrendering 91.8 points per game and allowing their opponents to shoot 43 percent from the field, which was second in the league.
This season has been a completely different story, as they’re 12th in scoring defense, allowing their opponents to score seven points more per game than last year (98.8 points per game) and ranking 10th in opponent field goal percentage. Giving up more points per game can be a function of pace, but the Bulls also have a defensive rating of 101.8, which is t-12th in the league, per NBA.com. These don’t sound like the numbers of a Tom Thibodeau-coached basketball team, and we just aren’t seeing the same tenacity and attention to detail on the defensive end as we’ve seen in the past.
Chicago has looked much more comfortable away from the United Center, and its record, albeit by a small margin, reflects that. (20-14 at home, 20-12 on the road) They were finally able to improve their home record during their last home stand, where they went 5-2.
This team will be going home early in the postseason if they’re not able to get their guys back healthy, but according to various reports, Butler and Gibson are expected to be back soon. Furthermore, Rose spoke to the media a few days ago and told them he was planning on returning this season.
But this isn’t all they need. As cliché as it sounds, defense wins championships. So far, the Bulls haven’t showed enough interest in that category, especially compared to past seasons. With 16 games remaining on their schedule, nine are against playoff teams from a season ago and several more are against much-improved teams. It would behoove the Bulls to impose their will defensively and exhibit some of that toughness that made them a scary squad in the past. Teams came into games fearing the Bulls, and that’s not the case right now.
Mirotic has been on a tear, averaging 16.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in his last 10 games. Chicago will desperately need him to continue his strong play in an effort to make up for some of the production they’re missing with the current injuries.
Although treading water was all that was expected with these injuries, the Bulls still find themselves atop the East as the third seed. This isn’t to suggest they’ve been playing great by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly their play hasn’t derailed them to a significant degree. Things can get interesting if they stay afloat, while allowing their stars to come back and provide a much-needed boost. But the question is: Will that be enough?
There are some chills emanating from the Windy City, and it’s not for the reason fans are used to. This time around they’re experiencing the shaking that results from anxiety as they’re desperately holding their breath in hopes of being able to witness better days in Chicago.