In light of the Bulls’ 106-87 win over the Miami Heat — a victory that moved them into seventh place in the East — I think it’s high time for the NBA and everybody who follows it to come to grips with a few suddenly inescapable facts:
1. The Bulls are a pretty good home team: Before Chicago beat Detroit at the United Center on Tuesday night, TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith scoffed — openly mocked, even — at the notion that having more home games than away games to finish out the season gave the Bulls any tangible advantage in terms of reaching the playoffs. Their reasoning was both simple and spurious: That no sub-.500 team has any sort of advantage over any other team. Period.
Well, I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong.
In a lot of ways, this year’s Bulls squad reminds me of last season’s Atlanta Hawks team, a unit that snuck into the playoffs with a 37-45 record. The 2007-08 Hawks were lethargic and unfocused on the road (which explains their 12-29 away record), but they were fire-and-lightning at home (hence the 25-16 standing there). And even the soon-to-be NBA champion Boston Celtics weren’t able to eke out a win at Philips Arena in that classic first-round playoff series.
Well, the 2008-09 Bulls — who as of last night have won nine of their last 10 games at the UC — are 22-12 at home this season. That compares pretty favorably with the current home records of teams like the Spurs (25-11), Hornets (26-11) and Suns (24-13)…three squads that are probably universally considered “much better” than the Bulls. And Chicago has very recently beaten good teams (like the Celtics) and hammered a few others (the Magic, the Nuggets and the Hornets) at home. They even beat the Cavs there back in January.
2. John Paxson’s before-the-deadline trades worked: The deal that brought Brad Miller and John Salmons to Chicago was considered by some to be a surrender trade, a sign that Pax had failed in his efforts to bring in a star to play alongside Derrick Rose. That coulda-been player was, supposedly, Amar’e Stoudemire. (You know, the guy who right before the trade deadline suffered an eye injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.) Even worse, some people felt that Paxson got fleeced into taking on Brad Miller’s hefty contract.
Well, Miller has been better than expected. He’s a starting center playing backup, which gives the Bulls depth and versatility up front, something they haven’t had in years. And Salmons, well, he’s been fantastic, particularly since Luol Deng went down with that stress fracture. During March, he’s averaged nearly 22 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond he arc. But forget the numbers: Salmons provides a dimension that Bulls have sorely lacked: A player who can create his own shot and consistently get to the basket. That opens things up for everybody else.
Oh, and he’s a pretty good defender, too.
3. The Bulls are (probably, most likely) aplayoff team: I really hope I’m not stat-cursing them here, but check out their remaining schedule: versus Indiana, at Toronto, at Indiana, versus New Jersey, versus New York, versus Philadelphia, versus Charlotte, at Detroit, versus Toronto. That’s nine games, six of which are at home, and only one of which is against a plus-.500 team (Philly). Hold onto your socks so they don’t blow off, but get this: It’s entirely possible Chicago could finish the season at .500 or better…without Luol Deng. Can you believe it?
Think about it. Last night they put the smack down on the Heat. That put their record at 35-38 and dropped Miami to 38-34 (sixth place in the East). For all their struggles and early-season disappointments, the Bulls are only 3.5 games behind a team with a bonafide MVP-caliber superdupertar who, depending on the night, is no worse than the third-best player in the league. Not bad for a team that has been left for dead three or four times (at least) this season.
As for the victory over the Heat, it was yet another in a growing list of all-around team efforts. Salmons led six Bulls in double-figures with a team-high 27 points on 12-for-22 shooting. Tyrus Thomas had his fourth double-double in five games (15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds) to go along with 3 blocked shots (also a game-high). Ben Gordon put in his usual 18 points. Kirk Hinrich got his second consecutive start, contributing 15 points and nailing four of his seven three-point attempts. Joakim Noah had 10 points and 7 boards. Miller finished with 12, 6 and 4. And Derrick Rose came off the bench to score 9 points and dish out a game-high 7 assists.
The Heat hung with the Bulls for a half, but Chicago dropped the hammer in the third, outscoring Miami 32-14. From there, they just coasted in for their sixth win in seven games. Said Salmons: “Just a couple weeks ago, we were out of the playoffs and weren’t playing well. We’ve put a good string of games together.”
They sure have.
Play of the Game: Just watch and enjoy. Let’s hope the Rose-to-Tyrus hookup becomes a regular thing for years to come.