Think back a moment. On December 22, the Bulls lost to the Knicks in New York and fell a season-worst seven games below .500. And mind you, that was only one night after they choked away a 35-point lead in an epic home loss to the Sacramento Kings.
I have to admit, coming back from 10-17 looked like an impossible uphill battle. Especially considering how badly the Bulls were playing outside of Chicago. Or in Chicago, for that matter.
And yet since January 9, the Bulls are 14-6…including 9-4 on the road.
There’s been so much drama this season. All the early regret about letting Ben Gordon go to the Pistons. Derrick Rose’s preseason injury and subsequent slow start. Tyrus Thomas’ injury and his subsequent descent into frustrated semi-rebellion. The disappointing play of John Salmons. All the negative buzz about coach Vinny Del Negro. The constant trade rumors. And, most recently, the joint exits of Salmons and Thomas. Seriously, these are the kinds of events that can break a team.
But here come the Bulls who, at 28-26, have a very real shot at earning the fifth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. However, as Jim Mora might caution, this probably isn’t the time to start talking about playoffs. After all, Chicago’s last three wins were over the Knicks, the Knicks again, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Knicks are nothing but a group of expiring contracts, and the T-Wolves are the second-worst team in the league.
That said…we shouldn’t take this latest win with a grain of salt.
After all, the Bulls were still without Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis), who probably is their second-best player. (Okay, it could be Luol Deng, but I’m going with Noah.) And with Salmons and Thomas gone, that means Chicago was missing three-fifths of the starting lineup they began the season with.
Not a problem. Just start Brad Miller (8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists) at center, plug Hakim Warrick (10 points and 9 boards, including 6 offensive) and Flip Murray (8 points, 3 rebounds) into the holes left by Thomas and Salmons, then get a typically strong game from Derrick Rose (19 points, 8 boards, 5 assists), add some hot shooting from Kirk Hinrich (7-for-12 for a game-high 20 points), include a step-up performance by Taj Gibson (14 points, 6-for-7, 9 rebounds) and Deng’s standard 18 points…
…see where I’m going with this?
It was just a nice, all-around team effort. I was really impressed by Warrick. He crashed the boards, ran the floor, and basically just worked it. I love it when guys scrap and hustle. If Warrick keeps playing the way he played last night, the United Center crowd is going to turn him into a folk hero. You know, until his contract expires this summer.
Murray didn’t shoot particularly well (3-for-8, 0-for-3 from downtown), but he scored 6 points in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter to help the Bulls establish a little breathing room.
Said Murray: “It was good for me to be able to come in and try to fit right into the rotation and fit into the system. Got a chance to go up and down with them, so we’ll go with it from there.”
Added Del Negro: “They’re going to be a little bit uncomfortable, where to be in the rotations and things. But you know they know how to play. They gave us a boost.”
Of course, the Bulls were sort of lucky that the Timberwolves kind of fell apart in the final 12 minutes. Chicago’s defense is part of the reason why Minnesota went 6-for-18 from the field, but the Timberwolves also bricked eight free throws in the fourth quarter.
Said Minnesota’s Al Jefferson: “I’d never seen anything like that. I guess all our energy was gone.
Surprisingly, the Bulls’ energy wasn’t gone. They didn’t shoot well — 43 percent as a team and 2-for-15 on threes — but they controlled their turnovers (12) and managed to outrebound Minny 51-41 (including 16-7 on the offensive glass) despite the continuing absence of Noah, who has missed seven straight games and probably won’t play at home against the Sixers tonight.
Yeah. When you think about everything this team has gone through, both over the season and the last several days, this win was actually something kind of special. I never thought I would feel this good about the Bulls under all these wacky circumstances.
Sometimes it’s good to be surprised.
1st timeout: Warrick missed 18-footer
2nd timeout: Warrick turnover
3rd timeout: Warrick missed 6-footer
4th timeout: Murray missed three-pointer
5th timeout: Deng missed 21-footer
6th timeout: Deng missed jumper
Ouch. Not a single play was successful coming out of timeouts…and the new guys were featured in four of the six post-timeout plays. Can we chalk this one up to working new players into the mix? Yeah. Probably not.
From Howlin’ T-Wolf: “The Wolves shot the ball well early and lead at halftime but instead of getting cold in the 3rd quarter they waited until the 4th to frustrate us fans. The Bulls out-rebounded the Wolves by 10 but there were only two real differences in the game: The Wolves hit 5 more of their 3 pointers than the Bulls and the Bulls made 11 more free throws. Those 6 points were the difference. The Wolves left the win at the line as they went 11-20 and continued to show that the free throw line is not one of their strengths.”