Robbed of Derrick Rose for the majority of the season, the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls‘ season was widely figured to be a “lost” season. The team would not, or simply could not, compete for a championship having lost their leader to injury and the majority of the players that made up a bench regarded as among the strongest in the league.
Try telling that to the Bulls and head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls currently sit in a menacing third position in the East. Only the conference-leading Miami Heat and second-seeded New York Knicks have fewer losses. That’s perfect positioning for a push to secure a third-straight No. 1 seed in the conference when their talisman point guard returns sometime after All-Star Weekend.
The reason for Chicago’s exceptional performance thus far this season is simple: Effort. There is not a single player on the roster that has not given their all and it shows in some of the significant victories attained this season: road wins in Miami, Boston and twice in New York. The roster can’t contend with the marquee players on these teams in terms of talent but it can certainly level the playing field just by trying harder.
Looking at the Eastern Conference standings, the Bulls sit pretty in third, just one game back of the Knicks and 2.5 games behind Miami with half a season in the books.
In the East, it is only the Heat that the Bulls should seriously fear over a seven-game playoff series. The likes of the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks could certainly give Chicago issues, but the Bulls are sufficiently good enough to deal with them and have been for the past two-and-a-half seasons.
The Knicks, one game ahead of the Bulls, are a challenge given Carmelo Anthony‘s incredible ability to heat up and shoot the lights out on any given night. However, the Bulls have swept the Knicks thus far with two statement victories in the Garden that would have been blowouts were it not for lapses in the fourth quarters of both.
The reasons for this are the basic principles of the Bulls under Thibodeau. Defense and rebounding. The Knicks couldn’t live with the energy and hustle after loose balls from the likes of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and the rest of the Bulls frontcourt. Tyson Chandler certainly rebounded well and used his now-patented one-handed tap back to secure a few rebounds but for the most part, Chicago’s big men dominated the glass on both ends.
As for the defense, New York is a great 3-point shooting team. They shoot them often and they shoot them well. Conversely, the Bulls are great defenders against the 3-point shot. They rank as the league’s fourth-best defense against the 3-pointer and hold opponents to league lows in both attempts and percentage made on corner 3-pointers, considered the most efficient shot in the game.
This came to pass against New York, as the Knicks couldn’t get good looks nor could Anthony get going–which perhaps nods us in the direction of two-time All-Star Luol Deng. Anthony has rarely gotten the better of Deng, who is fast becoming something of a star-stopper as he has slowed down Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in becoming one of the league’s best on-ball defenders.
Perhaps the only team in the conference better than the Bulls is Miami–hardly a profound declaration. The Bulls did beat them in their house in January, but if there’s anything Chicago fans know is that regular season records mean little–the Bulls swept the season series in the 2010-11 season, yet lost in five in an Eastern Conference Finals that weren’t really close.
The Bulls can exert the same advantages against the the Heat that they have done against the Knicks. Size and defense would at least give them a shot at taking down Miami, but they lack the scorers to really threaten them on offense. The Heat defense is one of the league’s best and the Bulls without a second star next to Rose will continue to struggle offensively.
With Derrick Rose back in full practice and his return now presumably less than one month away (going off the full practice-to-game ready time of fellow ACL-injury returnees Iman Shumpert and Ricky Rubio), the Chicago Bulls and Chicago sports fans alike can start to get excited about his return to action and while his short-term impact may be disruptive while he works his way into the rotation and feels out his repaired knee, the long-term impact can only be that he drags this team closer to the summit of the Eastern Conference.
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