The Bulls have finished with the top record in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons as coach Tom Thibodeau has maximized the efforts of each individual on those teams to make them as formidable a contender heading into postseason play. While this season’s team came nowhere close to that level of play that was defined the previous two seasons, they can still look back on what they where able to get accomplished and be proud of where they are at as they get set to face off against the Brooklyn Nets.
With all the injuries, Derrick Rose missing the entire regular season and the consistent speculation on his return, no one could have faulted them if they were spectators during the playoffs.
“I’m really proud of this season because it wasn’t easy,” Joakim Noah said. “We been through a lot. There was a lot of distractions, adversity and injuries. Regardless of what was thrown at us, we fought through hard through it all. I’m very proud of my teammates for that. There were times when guys were looking at our team and laughing. We never gave up. That’s something we can be proud of. Now it’s playoff time.”
Even with heading into the first round series against the Nets, the Bulls aren’t exactly at full strength as Noah, Taj Gibson will start on minutes limit.
Noah has played 14 minutes in both the past two games since returning to the lineup and, while Thibodeau said he’s liked the activity from his center, he still is unsure if he will be able to increase those minutes, or if he will continue bringing him off the bench.
“It’s a combination of how much can we play [Joakim],” Thibodeau said. “Whether he starts or comes off the bench, I think he can handle both and we have to maximize what [Joakim] can bring to our team.
“During the game, he feels fine. I think he’s hopeful that he’ll get better as we go along. It’s the type of injury where he’s going to have to try and manage it as best as he can. The one thing is, he’s doing everything he can to get out there. He wants to be out there very badly. Whatever he can give us is a huge plus for our team.”
Noah has no issue with continuing in a reserve role and is still trying to figure out the best course possible in managing the pain and trying to increase the load he’s accustomed to.
The Bulls defeated the Nets three out of four games during the regular season, but will head into the series as an underdog. Their success against them gives them hope, but they now from their last two postseason appearances that that success doesn’t always translate into the second season.
“I don’t put a lot of stock in that. They’re really good. They’re the higher seed, so they earned that and we’re going to have to be ready. I think that they play hard. You’re looking at [Brook] Lopez, a low-post presence. You have Deron Williams off the dribble, Joe Johnson of the dribble and then you have a lot of other guys that are very good basketball players. We have to be ready for them.
“During the regular season, there are a lot of things that go into when you’re playing –are they on the road? Is it four-in-five? Do they have guys out? Do we have guys out? So there are a lot of variables that you look at and I think it’s more about how you’re playing at the end of the season, who’s healthy for you. They’re a good team. They hit a lull at the beginning of the season when they had their injuries, but they’re tough. They have size and quality depth on that team. So we’re going to have to play a complete game.”
It’s sure to be an interesting first round as they have left the small possibility that Rose can return during the postseason and Thibodeau trying to manage a roster that while full, isn’t near peak health. One thing is unquestionable and that’s their belief in themselves, something that has never wavered this season.
“We’re confident against anybody. We’ve proved this year that we can beat the best and we can lose to the worst,” Noah joked. “It’s been an up and down year, a tough year, but I’m really proud of the way we handled so much adversity. I think that’s something people shouldn’t take for granted because we went through a lot and now we’re here.”