I love the focus of this team.
The Bulls are now seven games into their season-long nine-game road trip. They’re 5-2 on the trip so far and have three straight crushing victories over bad teams.
That may not sound all that impressive — and I know I’ve expressed concern over the Bulls padding their record against lesser opponents — but beating bad teams is meaningful.
First off, it’s easier than you think to fall into a trap. Just ask the Clippers, who lost to the Kyrie Irving-less Cavaliers last night despite strong performances from Blake Griffin (25 points and 15 boards) and Chris Paul (16 points and 12 assists).
Secondly, as Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference pointed out last year, the second-best predictor of playoff success is racking up blowout wins against weak teams. In fact, these “stomps” are a better predictor of potential postseason success than “guts,” which are close wins over good teams. (The best predictor is blowout wins over good teams.)
Now consider: This Bulls squad has played more road games (18) and more games overall (28) than any team in the league but still leads the NBA in wins (22) despite injuries to key players (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Rip Hamilton)…
…and they still have the focus, in the late stages of a very long road trip, to hold the Hornets to 67 points on 37 percent shooting while dishing out 29 assists on 39 made baskets and outscoring New Orleans 58-40 in the paint?
And despite a light workload for Rose (22 minutes, 6 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds)?
This team is locked in, folks.
Said Carlos Boozer: “We’re staying humble, staying hungry and we just did a good job of setting the tone defensively. We did a good job contesting shots, did a good job making them take tough shots, and at the same time I thought we did a good job executing our offense to make the lead grow.”
Added Rose: “We’re on a mission and we can’t take any steps back. It takes us playing with a lot of energy in the beginning and getting a comfortable enough lead that if we’re out of the game, the bench can come in and do what they have to do. … We’re learning. The last couple of games we’ve been jumping on people and that’s the right way to be.”
The Bulls aren’t just whistling dixie, either. They aren’t paying lip service. They are about desire, focus, and intensity. Every game. Every night.
On a related subject, the Bulls limited their turnovers to 12 while forcing 19 and scoring 29 points off the Hornets’ miscues.
Said New Orleans coach Monty Williams: “I believe that that’s the way you play if you want to win a championship. Everybody on that team knows their role. They have an identity and they live it out every night. I thought we had a tough time with their pressure.”
Added Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau: “We try not to change our approach from game to game. Practice, every practice the same. The challenge is to study, prepare, and when the ball goes up, know your opponent well. And know what you’re going to try and get accomplished. I think if you build that habit, then you continually work on it and do the right things every day, the results will take care of themselves.”
Thibs is right. The results really have been taking care of themselves.
And here’s a shocker for you. Chicago — not surprisingly — currently ranks a close third in Defensive Efficiency (94.6) behind Boston (94.5) and Philadelphia (93.8). But after finishing 12th in Offensive Efficiency last season, the Bulls (106.0) now rank second behind the Heat (106.2).
Even cooler, the Bulls are third (behind Boston and Philly) in Assist Ratio (the percentage of a team’s possessions that ends in an assist). That’s why watching this team play can be a thing of beauty. The ball is always moving. The players are always looking for — and hitting! — open teammates.
It’s good stuff. Very good stuff.
And with the team seemingly getting better every games…
…the best might be yet to come.