As evidenced by Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs, the regular season has no bearing on the postseason.
The Bulls are obviously well aware of that fact, but after the adversity they dealt with during the campaign — namely, Derrick Rose’s season-ending knee injury in November and January’s trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland — they have a unique perspective.
[NBA Playoffs: Bulls, Wizards ready to battle on CSN]
“This is what you work for. Eighty-two games is over. A lot of work went into it. I think our players responded well, put us in a good position. We have a great opportunity and now it’s up to us to make the most of the opportunity that we have,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. “It’s the playoffs so it’s how well you know your opponent, how well you’re playing, being as sharp as possible and knowing that most often, these games come down to one or two possessions.
“It’s never completely resolved in any particular area. You want to be as healthy as you can be and then you have to play well, and then you have to prepare well. And you’ve got to get yourself ready for what’s coming. You can’t look back. You can’t look ahead. Once it’s determined who we’re playing, study, prepare, get your edge, get your game and let’s go.”
All-Star center Joakim Noah chimed in: “Overall, we gave it everything we had and there’s no regrets in that. Like my boy Mike Dunleavy just told me, he said, ‘This is the fruit of our labor. Now we will have fun in the playoffs,’ and I agree with him on that note.
“We fought hard. There’s absolutely no regrets in this season. I feel like we competed every night and gave it everything we had. I’m not going to lie, this is the hardest season I think I’ve ever been a part of, physically and mentally. But I feel like overall, just really proud of everybody. Just all the work that people put in. You could just tell after every practice, everybody was shooting. Everybody put in extra work to get their games in order,” he continued. “Now the playoffs is the icing on the cake. As competitors, that’s what you want. You want to play in the playoffs, so I think we put ourselves in a pretty good position and you know what: I’m really proud just to be part of this team, seriously. Because I’ve never been around a group of guys who work so hard.”
After a December swoon following Rose’s surgery to repair his torn right meniscus, the Bulls got on a roll in January, even in light of the Deng deal and the acquisition of backup point guard D.J. Augustin proved to be one of the most important in-season personnel moves throughout the entire NBA.
“Even if we had Derrick, there was going to be a period of adjustment with him coming back after two years off. So there was an adjustment period there and of course the Luol piece was a big piece, and then Jo and Jimmy were hurt at the beginning of the season. So you had a lot of variables. I thought around January, we settled down and of course, the pickup of D.J. was huge for us. And then we got a good rhythm going and I thought we did as well as we could do, and I’m proud of what the team did,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of people thought it wouldn’t work out the way it did. These guys fought with great determination, great will and they responded well to the challenge that we had. And there’s still a long way to go and I think as a team, we could make another step and we want to concentrate on our improvement, and keep moving forward.”
Indeed, it was the team’s resiliency and collective chip on its shoulder, a response to some opinions that they should tank in order to get a high draft pick, that defined their regular season.
“I just look at like it like a team that just didn’t want to lay down. We were going to continue to do that. We still have that same mentality that when one guy goes down, the next guy is going to step up and take advantage of the situation, and I feel like that’s what we did. A lot of guys that didn’t lay down and everyone just stepped up their game, 110 percent. We pushed through to the very end,” Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson observed. “At the end of the day, people are going to say what they want to say. We’re a family in this locker room. We really just focus on us. We focus on what we believe in and like I said before, even when the bandwagon’s empty, we’re still going to believe in ourselves, no matter what. That’s the determination that we have on this team. We play hard every night and when somebody beats us, we live with it. We understand that we give it our all.”
Jimmy Butler added: “We did what we’re supposed to do, make it to the playoffs. Now it’s time to win 16 games and bring the chip home.”