CHICAGO -- To understand the level at which the Chicago Bulls dominated the Denver Nuggets during Friday night's 28-point blowout win, just take a look at how the Nuggets head coach described his team's performance after the game had come to its merciful conclusion.
"I told our team that I wish paychecks were predicated on night-to-night performance," Brian Shaw said. "If you play like a star on a given night, you get paid as a star. If you play like an uninspired player, then either you don't get paid or you get paid like an uninspired player. You can't pick and choose when you want. [Thursday] night we play Milwaukee, who is obviously down players. They have injuries, they have been playing all season long and we act like the big bad wolf against Milwaukee. Then we come in tonight in a nationally televised game against the Bulls and we tuck our tails, and we hide."
The Bulls broke Denver's spirit early in this game. They controlled the tempo and executed Tom Thibodeau's plan on both ends of the floor. Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin led the way as usual, but the production was spread out throughout the game. Tony Snell racked up 20 points after Jimmy Butler went down with a rib injury. Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy played their usual steady games. This performance was one of the Bulls' best all-around contests of the season and pushed their winning streak to five games.
As a group, this team is playing with more confidence than at any other point this season. So how did this happen? How did the Bulls find continuity in the middle of what many believed to be another lost season without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng?
"I think everybody's comfortable with their roles," Noah said. "Everybody knows what to expect from each other. I think our defense is getting better. The ball movement was really, really good tonight. I think it's just going to keep getting better. It all starts with our mindset as a team -- I think we're gaining a lot of confidence and it's all positive."
To Noah's point, the Bulls are playing with a free-flowing rhythm that hasn't been seen all year. They are coming out in games and crushing spirits -- a common trait in the Thibodeau era -- but one that hasn't been seen much this year. The Bulls led 32-19 after the first quarter and have pounded teams early and often over the past couple weeks.
"We're just setting the tone early," Gibson said. "Letting the other team know we're here to play. Letting them know that it's going to be a long night. That's the kind of solid basketball that we're accustomed to playing. We've been playing like that the last couple of years."
The Bulls have gone back to their principles. They are hitting teams hard, playing solid defense and running sets as precisely as ever. It's a stunning turnaround for a team that was left for dead a couple years ago and now heads into a showdown with a familiar foe on Sunday afternoon in the Miami Heat. It's a game that many in the locker room are looking forward to because their confidence level is so high. Each time the Bulls hit the floor they expect to win -- and Thibodeau has them believing the winning will continue for a while.
"We're just feeling good right now," Gibson said. "We're playing together as a team. Everybody's smiling, everybody's just going hard for each other, and it shows."