What a great performance by the shorthanded Bulls to snap Miami’s incredible winning streak at 27 games. Playing without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Marco Belinelli and Rip Hamilton, the Bulls out-hustled, out-performed and out-fought the defending NBA champs in front of a frenzied crowd of 23,000-plus at the United Center.
Still, after the initial euphoria over such a satisfying victory subsides, the obvious question remains: What does it really mean in the big picture? Clearly, Miami is the class of the league, and probably on its way to a second straight NBA championship. But, after coming up with the formula to beat the Heat (at least for one night), is Tom Thibodeau’s crew now the second best team in the East? The standings would tell you otherwise, with the Bulls currently tied with Atlanta for the fifth seed, but you could easily make the argument that a healthy Bulls’ team could beat any of the other conference challengers in a best-of-seven series.
Just take a look around the East. Thursday brought the news Indiana will have to enter the playoffs without their leading scorer of a year ago Danny Granger, who will miss the rest of the season following knee surgery. Sure, you can make the argument that current All-Star forward Paul George has more than made up for Granger’s absence this season, but the ability to bring a proven scorer like Granger off the bench would have given Frank Vogel a dangerous weapon in the postseason. Now, it looks like the defensive-minded Pacers are probably too offensively challenged to have a realistic shot against the Heat, and might not be better than a healthy Bulls’ team.
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The Knicks have been playing better lately, winning six straight, but they have injury issues as well. Tyson Chandler has been battling knee, back and neck pain, while top scorer Carmelo Anthony recently returned from a knee problem of his own. Veteran backups Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas are done for the season, leaving the Knicks dangerously thin up front behind Chandler, and New York’s reliance on three-point shooting makes them extremely inconsistent. The Bulls have already beaten the Knicks three times during the regular season, and I’m guessing that privately, they’d love to get Mike Woodson’s crew in Round 1.
Brooklyn is also playing better basketball after a mid-season slump. Former Illini star Deron Williams is back to his previous All-Star form after battling ankle pain most of the season, and Brook Lopez is a legit scoring threat in the post. But Joe Johnson is having a terrible season, and is anyone really worried about facing Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans up front? I’d take the Bulls over this crew in a best-of-seven.
Obviously, the key for the Bulls is getting healthy before the start of the playoffs. The Derrick Rose situation continues to be a mystery, and at this point, I don’t think anyone can count on Rose playing this season. Still, if the Bulls can manage Noah’s plantar fasciitis, Taj Gibson’s knee and ankle issues and Kirk Hinrich’s continuing aches and pains, they have the talent and experience to be a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The most recent win over the Heat should give Thibodeau’s guys a lot of confidence and the belief they can compete with any team in the conference.
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Let’s be honest, the continuing media coverage of Rose’s on-again, off-again return has been a mental drain on the entire franchise. The players expected to get the former MVP back in the lineup at some point this season, and so far, it hasn’t happened. The Bulls’ losing record since the beginning of February can be partially attributed to all the uncertainty and anxiety over the status of the team’s best player. But Wednesday’s win over the Heat showed the players just what they can accomplish if they play with the focus and intensity Thibodeau has been asking for all season. Hinrich said exactly that in the locker room after the game.
I’m certainly not predicting a championship after one regular season win over Miami. But Thibodeau might have found his starting shooting guard in second-year man Jimmy Butler, and if Noah can get his foot issues resolved, the Bulls might have found the formula for a decent playoff run.