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Saturday, March 1, 2014
Bulls don't panic, pick up big win over Mavs

By Nick Friedell

Monta Ellis and Joakim Noah
"We got punched in the face early in the game," Joakim Noah said. "We kept fighting."

DALLAS -- The reason the Chicago Bulls have rattled off eight wins in their past 10 games, including an impressive 100-91 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, has more to do with their DNA than it does with any one play or sequence.

The difference between the Bulls and many other teams in the league is that they rarely lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish. They believe in themselves and they believe in coach Tom Thibodeau's system. They believe, no matter how good their opponent might be, that they can win each night. That's why, when they got into a 16-point hole in Friday's first half and had to knock down shots late in the game, their demeanor never changed. They never stopped believing that tough defense and big shots would be the elixir against a Mavericks team playing some of its best basketball of the season.

"I just think we didn't panic," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, "I think guys understood what we have to do. ... We're just focused right now. Our defense is really clicking. Our offense is really clicking. Guys are really taking big-time shots, we're never panicking late, we've been in this situation. Our poise is just through the roof right now and we're really in a rhythm."

That's the key for Thibodeau's team as it streaks into March. The rhythm Gibson talked about was missing before the turn of the new year. The same Mavericks team came into the United Center in late December and beat the Bulls by 22 points. Gibson and his teammates are finding ways to adjust on the fly, something that was apparent in the defining fourth quarter, when the Bulls tightened up their defense and held the Mavericks to only six makes from the field in 25 attempts.

"We're tough whenever we're playing defense," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. "Rotating, getting into the ball. I think that's where the basketball starts for us. We let our defense dictate our offense."

The Bulls are only going to go as far as their defense takes them this season. That's why Friday's comeback win meant a little more to them. They realized yet again that they have the ability to shut down good teams on the road -- a trait that will serve them well in the playoffs. They realized that they could overcome their surroundings, as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban barked at officials under the basket and Dallas assistant coaches Mike Shedd and Mike Weinar screamed out most of the Bulls' sets whenever Thibodeau made a call. It's games like this, victories like this, that remind the Bulls just how important the little things are to winning.

"I feel like when people call you resilient that's a compliment," Noah said. "But we just got to stay hungry, stay hungry, keep this mindset, we got punched in the face early in the game, we stuck with it and we kept fighting. I think that's what this team represents. We got one of our best wins of the year today."

As a group, the Bulls understand how special what they've built has become. They know that the trust they have in one another doesn't happen often in the league. Most of all, the proof -- as Thibodeau likes to say -- is in the work.

"It's great," Gibson said of how rare it is for a team not to panic in those kinds of situations. "But you look at it, we've got this farm system -- guys really put in the work every day, each day out. Everybody just keeps developing. Mike [Dunleavy]'s knocking down big shots, D.J. [Augustin], we've got a lot of guys that's not afraid to take the fourth-quarter shot. And it's great to be out there with them when you've got guys with confidence like that."

The Bulls have a group that has learned how to win -- and it's a trait in which Thibodeau takes great pride. He knows most pundits and fans have written off his team already this season, and he thrives off that. He uses it as motivation for a group of players who love playing the role of underdog.

"I think when you get a team that's willing to sacrifice for each other, to play for each other, I think you can build a mental toughness that's necessary to succeed," Thibodeau said. "I think there's a commitment by each player to each other to not let the group down. And that's when something special can happen. You never know -- who knows where the ceiling is with our team?"