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NBA Sunday: Chicago Bulls Are Still Legit

Derrick Rose believes the Bulls can win the championship this year. He may be correct, writes Moke Hamilton.

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Chicago Bulls Are Still Legit

For almost as long as we can remember, the Eastern Conference has been thought to be a two-horse race between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks. But with the return of Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls are hoping to emerge as a third contender.

Them doing so is not outside of the realm of possibility, and it is especially possible if you ask Derrick Rose his opinion.

“Who knows?” Rose asked rhetorically to BullsTV after he played his first home game at the United Center since February 23.

“The [Mavericks] team that won a couple years ago, nobody knew they were going to win the championship until they did it,” Rose said. “I think that we got the same talent that they had and we still got the same mission from the beginning of the year. We want to win a championship. It seems like we’re getting close.”

A few weeks ago, the thought of the Bulls competing for all of the marbles this year seemed laughable. To Rose’s credit, though, at one point, the same could have been said for Nowitzki’s Mavericks.

But with Rose’s return to the lineup, their continuance as a plus-defensive team, the emergence of Jimmy Butler and re-emergence of Pau Gasol, are the Bulls really to be counted out?

If there is one thing that Tom Thibodeau should have taught you over the years, it is that a team wit him at the helm should never be discounted.

* * *

Before the season began—before Rose’s torn meniscus and rumors of Thibodeau’s demise—more than a few people chose the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference this year. Those that made such a prediction did so based on the belief that Rose would be healthy enough to be a difference maker. They also did so out of a belief that Thibodeau would continue to maximize the talent that he has been given and that he would continue to have his team be amongst one of the top defenses in the National Basketball Association.

As the season draws to a close, despite the Bulls entering the final week of play with no chance of finishing the season higher than the third seed in the conference, those beliefs have proven to be valid.

Under Thibodeau, this season, Jimmy Butler has become an All-Star contributor while Pau Gasol has reverted into one. Both Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic have given the Bulls positive contributions, as well.

As a unit, the Bulls are still formidable on the defensive end, ranking in the top 10 in the league in points allowed (98.1) and 11th in point differential (+2.7). They are fourth in the league in field goal percentage allowed (43.7) and are third in the league in defending the three-point line, allowing their opponents to hit just 33.7 percentage of their looks from behind-the-arc.

In other words, at their core, although they have collectively regressed from the 62-win team they were back in 2011, the Bulls are still a formidable defensive team. The major difference with them this season, is they are offensively potent, as well. Gone are the days where they struggle to score points.

Last season, the Bulls ranked dead last in the league in points per game (93.7) and the year prior, in 2012-13, they were tied for last with the Philadelphia 76ers. Obviously, advanced statistics could paint a rosier picture of the offensive ineptitude of the club, but the overall truth with the Bulls was that they were a roster that was wholly dependent on earning wins by making games ugly and grinding them out. They simply lacked offensively gifted personnel.

The same cannot be said for the team’s current incarnation. While they may have regressed defensively, they are much improved offensively. That balance may go a longer way toward winning big. In the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are still a team that is capable of pulling off a shocking upset. That, of course, is if the two best players on the roster can find some sort of sustained health and if they can contribute highly.

And unfortunately, that remains a big “if.”

* * *

Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were certainly amongst the most exciting players to observe on an NBA court. They would seemingly defy death and gravity, at will. Selling out arenas and causing collective gasps were routine.

Few, if any, though, have ever been capable of sucking the life out of an arena full of 20,000 quite like Derrick Rose.

What was most amazing to witness about Rose, even early on in his career—before he became a solid shooter and a cerebral floor general—was his explosive athleticism. What made Rose so dramatic to observe was the fact that he could literally explode like a Lamborghini, seemingly accelerating from 0-60 in four seconds. Splitting a double-team at the top of the key, taking two dribbles and floating a finger roll over the outstretched arms of a defender?

It was commonplace.

Gliding through the air, absorbing contact, contorting his body and finding a way to finish? No problem. His only rival with regard to his aerial agility is still Russell Westbrook, and before those two, the closest comparison was an in-prime Stephon Marbury, and he wasn’t really that close.

Because of physical and mental injury, that Rose has not been seen in quite a few years. And in the NBA, when you find yourself hoping to witness a reversion for so long, odds are, it is time to kiss the memories goodbye. In general, we as optimistic observers tend to hold on to memories and hopes for a bit too long. The gross majority of times, if it hasn’t come back within a year or two, it’s not coming back.

But with Rose, you simply cannot discount the possibility. Not yet, and especially not if you observed him on April 11.

On the same night that Butler made his return to the lineup due to a calf injury, Rose was playing in his third game since February 23. After having undergone his third knee surgery in less than three years, the hope for Thibodeau and his Bulls is that Rose could be somewhere near 100 percent and give the Bulls an opportunity to fulfill the potential that many across the league see in them.

On April 11, Rose did so much more.

Against the pesky Philadelphia 76ers, it was Rose who took the game over late and looked almost like his former self in the process.

For perspective, it was just one game and it also happened to be against one of the worst teams in the entire league. However, what was most inspiring to witness on the part of Rose was his confidence. He consistently attacked his defenders off the dribble and beat them more times than not. He finished strongly around the basket with each hand and seemed to be able to move and cut with more fluidity than he was able to prior to the meniscus surgery that he underwent back on February 27.

In the end, in just 29 minutes, he turned in what may be one of his finer efforts of the entire season. All things considered, that is amazing. 22 points, six rebounds, eight assists and zero turnovers are not normally eye-popping numbers for Rose, however, consider the following:

It was only the second time all season long that Rose has amassed at least six rebounds and six assists in the same game.

It was just the third time all season long he ended a game with zero turnovers.

It was the fifth time all season long he attempted at least seven free throws.

Granted, the race is not for the swift. One game will not make or break a player or his season. But for Rose to show that type of in-game impact, for him to do it so quickly after his return and for him to do it so sharply—it is certainly something worth watching as the Bulls enter the final week of the regular season in a dead heat with the Toronto Raptors for the third seed in the Conference.

“I’ve been out for a long time, so every game I play is going to be a plus for me,” Rose told CSN Chicago after the impressive effort.

“Coming out, playing hard, trying to go into the playoffs strong with a groove and it’s paying off—all my hard work is paying off. I can’t wait to see how I play when I put everything together.”

And for Rose, that’s what it is all about. Mediocrity has never been his aim nor his aspiration. For as long as we can remember, Rose has been enamored with the challenge and the potential of bringing the Bulls their first championship since Michael Jordan hung it up in January of 1999.

“I feel better but at the same time, I know that this is only one game. I put this one behind me already and it’s on to the next game,” Rose said.

Yes, and on to the playoffs. The charge toward championship greatness continues.

* * *

As the Bulls close out their season, there are quite a few question marks. Aside from Rose, the other major one is Joakim Noah, who, this season, has seemed to regress mightily.

It has become commonplace for Noah to arrive at the playoffs beaten and battered. Although his performance in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs was awe-inspiring, the Bulls would prefer if Noah did not have to take on the responsibility of helping them win a playoff series while operating on one good foot, which is exactly what he did back in 2013. It was at the expense of the Brooklyn Nets.

Entering this season, the organization thought it wise to limit Noah to 32 minutes per game in an attempt to keep him fresher for the playoffs. Noah has missed 13 games this season, most recently for what has been reported as knee soreness. Over the course of the season, the former All-Star has let his frustration be known. The Bulls have lost some games while Noah sat idly on the bench, mostly due to concerns over his long-term health and a want to not exceed his minutes restriction.

Partially as a result, he has averaged just 7.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. While those numbers are still impressive, they are far from the 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists he averaged over the course of the 2013-14 season.

For what it’s worth, Noah played about 37 minutes per game in 2012-13 and 36 minutes per game in 2013-14. This season, he has played right around 30 minutes per game. That has been by design.

Now, as the Bulls charge toward the playoffs, the minutes restrictions for both Rose and Noah will be lifted.

So long as Butler and Gasol continue to perform at a high level, the ways things look at this very moment, for a change, the Bulls may be getting their house—and health—in order at the right time.

The San Antonio Spurs have shown us in recent weeks that getting hot at the right time can change everything with regard to how you are perceived come playoff time. And recall that the 1995 Houston Rockets won the NBA Finals at the sixth seed, having had to win each of their four playoff series without home court advantage.

Heading into the postseason, these are amongst Thibodeau’s reminders to his club.

* * *

Yes, the Hawks and the Cavaliers have seemed destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals for as long as we can remember. However, if the Bulls end up with the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, they will have an opportunity to battle the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series. As the fourth seed, the Bulls would take on the Raptors and then, if seeds held, the Hawks. Although they would be the underdog in perhaps each series, that would be based on the assumption that neither Rose nor Noah could rediscover their greatness and effectiveness.

If that assumption is incorrect, though—if they are—What then?

Could they, in fact, channel the 1995 Rockets or the 2011 Mavericks?

With Rose on the floor playing meaningful minutes, if he continues to progress, and if Noah’s minutes restriction proves to have been a wise investment, it is quite possible.

For a change, the Bulls may be getting their house in order at the right time.

For so long, the conference has seemed a two horse race, but if Rose is correct—if things break right—the Hawks and the Cavs may have to make way.

The Bulls are charging, and if they truly have a head of steam, there’s no telling where they will be stopped.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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