SAN ANTONIO--Even the most optimistic impartial observers, if injected with truth serum, couldn't say they envisioned this Bulls team, after what they've endured thus far this season, to be trending upward.
Another campaign of feisty play and gutting out a litany of injuries, despite diminished expectations? Sure.
But being poised to be a real factor in the conference, albeit the underwhelming East? Not after Derrick Rose's season-ending injury, the squad's subsequent December swoon and just when they got healthy, trading away leading scorer Luol Deng.
Yet here we are, after a resilient and relatively tough January, surviving various absences, making do with new pieces--whether short-term additions or those in place for at least the rest of the year--and starting out a six-game Western Conference road trip with a bang, outlasting the Spurs, one of the league's elite teams, Wednesday night.
After seemingly overachieving last season, this is old hat for these Bulls, this undermanned, beating-the-odds stuff. All-Star center Joakim Noah just elevates his game to another level, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Taj Gibson adds a new dimension to his own, swingman Jimmy Butler fights through growing pains while gradually adjusting to a new role and the likes of Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich fill in the gaps as needed. Meanwhile, novices to their high-wire act, such as midseason acquisition D.J. Augustin, veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy Jr. and even rookie wing Tony Snell quickly find out that what it takes and blend right in according to the strong-willed, Svengali-like whims of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.
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As the shock of injuries and trades have faded, roles have been solidified and adversity isn't only navigable, it's regarded as an obstacle to be conquered. On most evenings, victories won't be very pretty and some of the losses will be even uglier.
The utmost level of competitiveness is needed to not only beat the best, but even the NBA's cellar-dwellers; still, the Bulls are capable of topping either. The odd evening on which they don't come to play or things simply aren't click on will lend credence to that pro-tanking faction of fans that haven't seen the point in trying to win since that November night in Portland, though the inspirational triumphs, like this balanced effort against San Antonio, resonate afterward as a point of pride.
There's a lot of time before the end of the season--even prior to the looming February trade deadline, which threatens to bring more changes, let alone until the conclusion of this current road trip--but there's already a certain feel to it, an aura of confidence that comes from knowledge and experience. Maybe it was the sight of Marco Belinelli in a reunion with his former team, but it's undeniable that the Bulls have been here before and one can't blame them for feeling like they're better for it, especially with a practice run under their belt.
After all, if their oft-repeated stock answer when questioned about overcoming adversity is to be believed--"It only matters what we think," everybody from Thibodeau to Noah will say--why not try to create something out of nothing one more time?