With four victories in their recent five-game road trip, the Chicago Bulls made a statement loud enough for everybody in the NBA to hear. For the first time since Michael, Scottie and Phil left town in 1998, the Bulls are legitimate championship contenders.
The Bulls showed their mental toughness and resiliency in bouncing back from their 83-80 loss in Atlanta Wednesday night. The Bulls blew a 17-point halftime lead against the Hawks and scored only 30 total points in the second half, and point guard and MVP candidate Derrick Rose took the blame for his team’s collapse.
“The game was definitely on me,” said Rose. “But I guarantee it won’t happen again.” It didn’t. The Bulls finished off their five-game road trip through the Southeast by defeating the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat.
The Bulls’ 87-86 victory over the Heat on Sunday completed a season sweep of the squad former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy thought would challenge the 1995-1996 Bulls’ NBA-record 72 wins.
The Bulls’ win literally left the Heat in tears.
“This is painful for every single one of us to go through this, there are couple of guys crying in the locker room right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.
While the Heat, losers of four straight, hardly look like the NBA’s best team, the Bulls keep impressing.
The Bulls have moved ahead of the Heat into second place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 43-18. They have proven themselves against the the NBA’s best, holding an 11-6 record against the league’s top teams.
For the Bulls, it all starts with Rose. The Chicago native and Eastern Conference All-Star starter leaves fans and opposing players breathless with his electrifying moves. In a league where a superstar is needed to win championships, the Bulls definitely have one.
Rose leads the team with 24 points and 8 assists per game, and has emerged as a favorite to take home this season’s MVP award. Even teammates of LeBron James, the player considered Rose’s main competition for the award, believe Rose is the NBA’s MVP.
“I think I would give it to Derrick if I were a voter. He’s playing well,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh. “He’s playing like the best point guard in the league and the best player in the league. He’s the most valuable player if you really think about it. You take him out of the lineup there’s no telling what you get.”
While Bosh’s last statement may be true, the Bulls are more than just Rose.
Forward Luol Deng has emerged as an all-around star on his own. Deng is averaging 17 points and 6 rebounds per game, and has become the Bulls’ go-to-player in the clutch. On Sunday, Deng hit three free throws in the game’s final seconds to give the Bulls the lead.
It’s obvious from coach Tom Thibodeau’s praise that Deng’s improved play has been essential to the Bulls’ success.
“When you’re around him every day and you see his leadership and the way he works, you can’t say enough about him,” said Thibodeau. “He’s our glue. He keeps us together. When things are tough, he’s the same. He doesn’t get rattled.”
One of the reasons the Bulls will be a tough team to play in the postseason is the depth of their front court. Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Kurt Thomas all receive regular time in Thibodeau’s rotation.
Because Boozer missed the season’s first 18 games with a broken hand and Noah recently missed 30 games with a broken wrist, the other three big men all received more playing time than they would have normally. This gave the backups a chance to gain experience playing with the starters, and gave youngsters Gibson and Asik a chance to develop their skills.
Asik, a seven-foot-tall rookie from Turkey, improved drastically while filling in for the injured Noah. Asik had a career-high 13 rebounds against Dwight Howard and the Magic on Friday night.
Having not played a full 82 games, Noah and Boozer should be fresher than their opponents entering the playoffs. As well, now that both are back, Thibodeau can rest the 38-year-old Thomas so he’s ready and able to be a defensive enforcer in the playoffs.
The Bulls still need to improve if they are going to win a championship this season, and the players realize it.
“We’re just trying to play the best we can,” Noah said. “I think we still have a long way to go and we can get a lot better. That’s what is so exciting about this team. Our defense is really improving. We can still improve offensively as well. We can take this pretty far.”
I wrote this story in March 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.