There’s an air about these Chicago Bulls.
That’s easy to say after Saturday afternoon’s triple-overtime win that put the higher-seeded Nets on the brink of elimination form the first round of the playoffs, but even looking at things as a whole, this is a special group.
Special as in a true contender or just a group capable of messing things up for others in the postseason?
That remains to be seen, but more and more, whispers about them possibly having the mettle to challenge the defending-champion Heat in the second round—no, 3-1 doesn’t clinch the series, but if Brooklyn, already not regarded as a group possessing infinite amounts of heart, could be a broken team after that devastating loss at the United Center—seem less far-fetched now.
What no longer seems like a pipe dream is the Bulls’ ability to overcome adversity and simply will their way past long odds and opponents with more actual talent.
A defiant bunch that recognizes its own inner strength and has a true-believer view of the journey placed before them, the normal equations of the NBA—already without their superstar, they shouldn’t have enough firepower to continuing progressing in the rugged postseason—don’t apply, in their collective opinion.
But uniquely prepared, both from the events of last spring and a season-long quest (a regular season that resulted in 45 wins, the exact amount this writer predicted before the campaign began, whether by luck or foresight) to beat the standing-eight count, the perception of their blue-collar style has morphed from ugly to beautiful, as their toughness is being celebrated as just as aesthetically-pleasing to see as any glamour team’s showmanship.
“I think we’re growing in that area. I still think we could be better, but I do like the resolve of our team and it hasn’t been easy. But no matter what we get hit with, we just keep moving forward and I like that about our team,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who’s molded this overachieving squad, said after the team’s film session Sunday afternoon at the Berto Center. “Yeah, I think being mentally tough when you face adversity. I think one of the byproducts of having to deal with all the injuries, it allows some players to have growth.
“Jimmy [Butler] has started off being a bench guy and has really emerged. He’s had a terrific season. I think we knew what Nate [Robinson] was when we got him and he’s proven to be a terrific player. Nazr [Mohammed] has really played well for us. Taj [Gibson] has been Taj, so we feel very good about our bench and then of course the starters, guys you can count on all the time. Kirk [Hinrich], Luol [Deng], Carlos [Boozer], Joakim [Noah]. Joakim started off having a great season.
"The injuries slowed him down some, but he’s showed us now what he’s all about, which is winning and in this league, that’s critical,” he continued. “Derrick [Rose] missed half the season last year, so we had to learn how to play without him last year and this year, we knew we could plan on that going into the season, that he wasn’t going to be here. The challenge was really getting all the new guys onto the same page as quickly as possible, to learn our system, to learn their teammates. That was the big challenge. Our bench guys have done terrific for us.”
At no time has that ever been more evident than in the 142-134 Game 4 win.
It should be noted that the obscenely high point total--even with the benefit of 63 minutes of basketball--offended the defensive-minded Thibodeau’s sensibilities, though the coach did find some value in his normally scoring-challenged squad triumphing in a different fashion than anyone’s accustomed to seeing.
“I’ve become an offensive coach now,” he joked, before turning serious. “The thing is you have to win different ways. They made shots. Some of the plays were defended well. We knew they were good going in. You can’t let your guard down against them. They’re a great team. They’ve shown that all year. We know we’re going to have to play our best game tomorrow.
“You have to have the ability to win games different ways. The nights you’re not shooting the ball well, you want to be able to count on your defense and rebounding. I don’t think you want to make a habit of trying to outscore people,” Thibodeau continued. “The goal is always to be a well-balanced team. If you look at the teams that consistently do well in the playoffs, they’re good on offense and defense. That’s what we’re striving for. The challenge for us is to study the game, make the necessary corrections and move forward.”
Regardless, the contest will undoubtedly go into the annals of the franchise’s post-Michael Jordan era as one of the most thrilling in Bulls history, right up there with the 2009 triple-overtime victory over the Celtics at the United Center in Rose’s rookie season.
Thibodeau, who was a Boston assistant coach for that game, shunned the notion that two games had much in common.
“Each game is different. That game is not going to have any meaning when the ball goes up tomorrow. We have to be ready to play right from the start. From what I recall, I think Game 7 was a blowout. Each game is different. Being ready to play is the most important,” he said. “It’s one game. I like the fact we never quit on the game. That’s been the nature of the team all season. They keep battling. Things weren’t going our way but there was no give-in. We just kept going.”
Thibodeau can downplay it if he likes, but just like the aforementioned classic, Saturday’s game certainly had its iconic moments.
There were subtle sequences, like Kirk Hinrich’s back-to-back pesky defensive plays and subsequent baskets on the offensive end, which helped set the tone in the first half and laid the groundwork for the veteran to play Brooklyn counterpart Deron Williams, considered one of the game’s elite floor generals, to a draw, if not statistically, then in terms of impact.
Another play that typified the Bulls’ take-nothing-for-granted mentality was Jimmy Butler’s game-saving block at the end of regulation, in which the second-year swingman reacted immediately to not Williams’ missed jumper, but Gerald Wallace’s offensive rebound, stuffing the Nets’ small forward’s point-blank tip-in attempt at the buzzer.
“Well, the thing is we know we can’t guard their team individually. We have to be tied together, so it was a great play by him and again, we had a number of guys step up and make big plays,” Thibodeau said, sanitizing the memory of what was an incredible play, in terms of its timing, instinctiveness, athleticism and hustle. “Our ball pressure, our weak-side reaction, we have to be able to count on that, so when we’re tied together, we’re pretty good defensively.”
One thing the coach couldn’t simply mix into the context of the team just doing its job, as he likes to say, was Nate Robinson’s virtuoso performance.
The Jordan sneaker fanatic was second only to his idol in scoring 23 fourth-quarter points, including 12 consecutive over the final 2:53—like Jordan, to tie Brooklyn and complete the 14-point comeback, Robinson utilized the element of surprise, passing to teammate Carlos Boozer for a layup, just as Jordan would famously dish off to the likes of Steve Kerr, current team executive vice president John Paxson or even Bill Wennington (in his “double-nickel” game), when the opposing defense expected him to continue attempting to score—in an inspired performance.
For a day at least, the diminutive scorer owned Chicago, as fans cheered his first-half roughing up of scorned predecessor C.J. Watson, whose missed dunk—as well as Wallace’s bone-crushing backcourt screen on Robinson—seemed to key the run, or at least Robinson.
“The thing about Nate is and again, I think maybe if I didn’t have the previous experience with him, it would have been more challenging, but there’s more good to Nate than there is bad and he usually responds well if there’s a mistake that occurs along the way. He’s a character, but he’s a big-time catalyst for our team. He makes things happen out there and made a lot of big shots for us,” said Thibodeau, who crossed paths with Robinson in Boston. ‘I knew him. Gar [Forman, the Bulls’ general manager] and John [Paxson] really liked him. They thought that he would fit a need for us and he has, so he’s done his job.
“He’s grown and I think he’s learned from his experiences. I hope he continues to learn. I think he can still grow, but even from a few years ago in Boston, he’s a lot different now than he was then,” the coach continued, before humorously admitting that the talkative sparkplug hasn’t completely changed his ways. “You can hear him [on the team plane]. I prefer to hear him more on defense.”
If Robinson ruled the Windy City after Saturday’s game, he shared those duties with the similarly charismatic Joakim Noah, whose overall effort on a bad right foot was also loudly commended by the Bulls faithful.
Still playing through a bout of plantar fasciitis, the All-Star center labored less than he had previously in the series, seemingly getting stronger as time went on.
Noah’s putback to send the game into a third extra session only symbolized his determination, but his ability to contend with fellow first-time All-Star center Brook Lopez, Brooklyn’s most consistent player throughout the series was crucial, as his mobility, ability to anchor the Bulls’ interior defense, top-tier rebounding and uncanny passing are major components to the Bulls’ success.
Meanwhile, the steady, if less flashy stylings of forwards Carlos Boozer and All-Star Luol Deng, able to mute their games when others have it going, but capable of putting the onus on themselves otherwise, proved just as important, as the tandem of Duke products kept their heads in the marathon contest, despite not being focal points.
Even Chicago native Nazr Mohammed, once an afterthought in the rotation, but a key piece in the second half of the season after Noah’s injury woes took shape, again proved he was both ready and reliable, coming in after the starting center fouled out and making clutch plays.
Look up and down the Bulls’ roster and almost everyone—even the likes of midseason acquisition Daequan Cook, seldom-used veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovic and rookie point guard Marquis Teague—has had their time in the sun this season.
It would be easy to credit only Thibodeau for that sense of readiness—especially as he points to himself when the team doesn’t have it—but as in all things related to the Bulls, it’s been a collective effort.
That may or may not be enough for this team to make a deep, extended run this postseason, but after what’s been witnessed thus far, you can’t put it past them.