BOSTON -- Joakim Noah wedged his 7-foot, 260-pound body into the small frame of a locker on the far side of the visitor's locker room at the TD Garden after the Chicago Bulls' 95-91 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
The young center scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds, but he looked like a little child who had just been scolded and sent to his room without dinner. His head tilted to the side as his eyes gazed off in the distance toward nothing in particular. He knows his team is good, but even after completing a nine-game road trip with a respectable 6-3 record, he realizes that they could have played much better.
"There's no excuses," Noah said. "We're 6-3 on this road trip. We want to be a championship team. And to be a championship team, it's OK, but it's not great. Obviously, we're not playing with our MVP, but there's definitely enough in this room to win a game like tonight. But I feel like today, we got out-competed."
Noah was right. The Bulls didn't play with the edge that fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the past couple of months. Granted, the Bulls were playing without Derrick Rose (back) and Rip Hamilton (groin/thigh), but they were getting beat up and down the floor, as evidenced by the 33-7 advantage the Celtics built up in fast-break points.
Of course, the bigger issue for the Bulls is the fact that out of those nine games, the only three they lost came against teams with winning records. They crushed the bad teams and lost to the good ones. While Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn't sound too concerned, you can be sure he made his players aware of the discrepancy.
"You've got to play well on the road," Thibodeau said. "You can't judge anything now. You judge it at the end. When you go in and you play a quality opponent on the road, every team is capable of beating you. You've got to do the same things to win. You could lose to anybody in this league. I don't look at it the way you guys do. I look at it totally different."
So what exactly should the Bulls take from this trip? The positives of winning six games in dominant fashion or the negatives that come with the fact that they dropped three? It all depends on who's talking.
"I don't think we're far from where we want to be," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "I think we're right there, but it would be good to get healthy a little bit and get some of the guys that we're missing back. It will be good to be back in Chicago and get some home-cooked meals, sleep in our own beds, and play some home games at the UC."
The Bulls still have the best record in the Eastern Conference at 23-7. They've completed the toughest stretch of their schedule already, considering they just wrapped up a stretch of playing 20 out of 30 games on the road. They've played seven games without Rose, the NBA's MVP, and another 19 without Hamilton, the guy who was supposed to be a difference-maker at the shooting guard spot. The Bulls have proven they're a very good team, but have they proven they are good enough to get to where they want to go this season?
While it may still be too early to tell, what's evident is the fact that the Bulls struggle without Rose on the floor against solid defensive teams. It's understandable given how important he is to the team's offense. When he is out, or he gets shut down for certain stretches in games, who else is going to step up? Luol Deng, C.J. Watson, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver combined to shoot just 13-for-46 from the field against the Celtics.
Having said all that, the Bulls should be fine in the short term even if Rose has to sit for an extended amount of time. (He's scheduled to meet with a back specialist Monday in Chicago.) The Bulls head into the All-Star break with a six-game homestand, with only two of those games coming against teams with winning records. Rose, and Hamilton could conceivably have three weeks of rest if the Bulls decided to shut each player down until after the break. They can win without both for a little while longer.
But if the injury woes continue, and the Bulls don't develop the kind of consistency that they need against the upper echelon of the NBA, this two-week stint on the road could serve as a precursor for how the rest of the season might play out. Thibodeau realizes all this and that's why he's hoping he can get his team back on track against better competition quickly.
"We've got to be ready when we go home," Thibodeau said. "That's a big thing. I think we can't look back. Everyone's going to say the schedule changes, it's going to be easy. It's not going to be easy. You can't look ahead. You can't look behind. You've just got to stare at that next one. That next one's Sacramento [on Tuesday]. We've got to be ready for it."
The Bulls have proven they can be ready for games against weaker teams such as Sacramento. The real challenge for Thibodeau is figuring out whether his team is ready for the challenge of playing, and beating, the best. Up to this point of the season, as well as the Bulls have played, they're still falling short as far as that challenge is concerned.