After Chicago’s 113-99 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Tyrus Thomas said: “We’re the most dangerous team going into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference right now. I wouldn’t say anyone is counting us out, but we’re the underdog right now. I think we’re going to come out and shock a lot of people.”
You know, a few months ago, those words might have earned Tyrus a one-way trip to one of those fancy medical institutions where they provide free mood-altering drugs with every meal and make the guests put their jackets on backwards. And, frankly, Ty’s rather bold proclamation is still roughly 78.3 percent crazy — it’s science, look it up — considering that the Bulls share the Eastern Conference with the invincible-at-home/best-record-in-the-league Cleveland Cavaliers, the reigning champion Boston Celtics and the pretty-darn-good Orlando Magic.
But still, facts are facts, and the numbers say this: The Bulls are on fire. They’re 9-3 over their last 12 games. They’ve won 13 of their last 14 at home. They’ve gone from “semi-longshot to make the playoffs” to “semi-longshot not to make the playoffs.” Currently, their magic number for earning a trip to the postseason is one, as in one more win by them or one more loss by the Charlotte Bobcats, and John Hollinger’s playoff odds give them a 99.8 percent chance of making it into the NBA’s second season.
It’s mind-boggling. No, really. My mind is totally boggled. Back on January 25, the Bulls kicked off a seven-game Western Conference road trip with a come-from-ahead overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, falling a season-worst nine games below the .500 mark (18-27) in the process. And I’m here to tell you, folks, it looked like the season was over, finished, kaput.
Yet now, 74 days later, Chicago is ranked seventh in the East and has pulled to within a game of .500. I’ll save you from doing simple math by telling you that they’ve gone 21-13 since their own personal Armageddon. That’s a pace that would put them at or around 50 wins over a full 82 games. From a fan’s perspective, I’ve gone from just hoping and praying that they’d win a game every now and again to pretty much expecting them to win every home game. That’s a pretty amazing turnaround, all things considered.
The win over the Sixers showed how much this team has grown over the course of the season. Not necessarily defensively, though: Philly shot close to 60 percent in the first half and just a shade over 52 percent for the game. But the Bulls took care of the ball, committing only 12 turnovers (for 14 points going the other way). They forced the Sixers into only one more turnover than that, but they took greater advantage of their opponent’s miscues, transforming those 13 bumbles into 24 points. They also ran out to a 20-11 edge in fast break points, and keep in mind that Philadelphia is a running team.
The Bulls fell behind by 14 points (38-24) in the second quarter, but they mounted a furious comeback that was capped off by a pretty spectacular block by Derrick Rose on Lou Williams that led to a game-tying three-ball by Ben Gordon. Chicago then poured it on and pulled away in the second half, going up by as many as 20 (105-85) in the final five minutes before settling on the final 14-point margin.
Tyrus, by the way, was amazing. He was aggressive and energetic, earning 14 free throws and hitting every one of them. That was his career-best for FT attempts, and he scored a game and season-high 24 points…earning something I call a Dantley in the process. (That is where a player scores more points off foul shots than field goals, which is usually a sure sign that they’re not settling for bailout jumpers.)
I also felt like there was a key moment in Ty’s evolution as a player, and it came with just over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. Brad Miller dished the ball to him when he was wide open from 20 feet out, and instead of chucking it up, he took a quick dribble for a much more reasonable 14-footer…which he nailed to put the Bulls up by 14 (91-77). That play, and what I feel it means in terms of his maturation, caused me to jump right out of my seat.
I also have to give it up for Brad Miller. Yes, I understand his contract is hefty — he’s making over $11 million this season and will make over $12 million next season — but he’s such a steady veteran presence. Brad came back strong from his 1-for-10 stinker against the Knicks, scoring 15 points (6-for-11), snaring 6 boards and dishing 6 assists. He threw some fantastic length-of-the-court passes off of defensive rebounds, and he also hit a wacky reverse “Ground Jordan” layup (while getting fouled) in the fourth quarter. Really, is there a better backup center in the league right now?
It was just a great, all-round team win. I don’t know if it makes the Bulls a threat to the Cavs, Celtics or Magic…but does make them a real threat to win back the heart of a city that almost gave up on them a couple months ago.
Player notes: Ben Gordon had a co-game-high 24 points (9-for-19) as well as a co-game-high 7 rebounds. Derrick Rose added 16 points (8-for-13), a team-high 8 assists and a team-high plus-minus score of +25. John Salmons scored a reasonably efficient 14 points (6-for-12 from the field, 2-for-5 from beyond the arc). Joakim Noah came pretty close to a double-double (8 points, 7 boards). Kirk Hinrich came off the bench to chip in 9 points (4-for-9) and a couple assists.