Last night, the Bulls completed their first season sweep of the Pistons since the first full season of Michael Jordan’s first comeback when the team set an NBA record by winning 72 games. In the process, Chicago pulled to within a half game of the Toronto Raptors — who lost to the Heat in Miami — for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m pleased as punch the Bulls are back in the playoff race. But let’s be realistic. They did so with back-to-back wins against one of the worst teams in NBA history and another squad that has now lost eight straight games and 15 of their last 17. As the AP recap pointed out, Chicago is seven games under .500 this season against all the teams not named “Detroit Pistons.”
Okay, sure, there were some good signs. For instance, the Bulls shot a blistering 55 percent from the field. This was in large part due to the fact that Flip Murray (team-high 23 points, 9-for-14, 3-for-5 in threes) was red-hot, but the players were also working the ball around for open shots (24 assists) and being very aggressive in attacking the rim. That’s why, as a team, the Bulls hit 14 layups and earned 34 free throw attempts.
Furthermore, Derrick Rose had the kind of game that made me wonder whether he’d been reading the reports that he’s overrated. Rose scored 21 points on only 13 shots, got to the line eight times and dished out a game-high 9 assists (his second straight 9-assist game). That’s pretty much how he’s supposed to play, right?
Oh, and of course Joakim Noah posterized Jason Maxiell so brutally that I thought Stacey King was going to have a seizure during the Bulls’ telecast. I guess Noah is feeling better, although he finished with only 2 rebounds and no blocked shots in 17 minutes of PT. What the heck, let’s watch that jam, shall we?
The bad news is that, after building a 62-44 halftime lead, the Bulls lost their focus and let the Pistons back into the game by getting outscored 32-22 in the third quarter. The same thing happened in the fourth quarter, when Chicago let Detroit cut a 102-86 lead all the way to 109-103 in the final minute.
I’m sorry, but the Bulls are not a good enough team to lose focus like that. They might be able to get away with that garbage against teams that could rightly be demoted to the D-League, but other clubs might eat them alive. Oh, and hey, look at Chicago’s next five games: Suns, at Washington, Bobcats, Bucks and Cavaliers. The Wizards game notwithstanding, the Bulls are facing down three games against teams fighting for playoff positioning and one game against the best team in the league.
Who do you suppose is most likely to blink first? But, at the very least, the Bulls are saying all the right things.
Said Rose: “It’s right here. Everybody is just coming and playing hard. We’re playing defense right now, trying to rebound the ball and run. That’s the way that we play.”
Added Noah: “We just got to keep it up, keep fighting. We’re playing against a better opponent on Tuesday. Every game is a big test. Toronto lost today, we’re pretty aware of that. We’re right where we want to be. We just got to keep fighting.”
Concluded Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro: “I know we have to win games. Any way you want to look at it, I have to focus in on our next game — Phoenix. Prepare us the best. There are no easy games, like I always say. And Phoenix is obviously a huge test for us. What happens with the [other] teams, I can’t control. I can just control our preparation and try to get these guys ready to go.”
Forget about the Nets and Pistons. Those games were glorified practice sessions. Tuesday night’s game against the Suns is the real indicator of whether the Bulls have what it takes to sneak into the playoffs. Let’s hope Vinny is as good as his word and can get the guys ready for that.