Jon Greenberg Blog: D.J. Augustin

Bulls fine-tuning their focus at right time

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:22
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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The joke about the Chicago Bulls and their magical 2013-2014 season is that if they were in the Western Conference, they'd be in ninth place and Joakim Noah would be ready for a beach bonfire in Bora Bora.

But the Bulls aren't in the Western Conference, and if they can avoid Miami in the second round, they could conceivably make the Eastern Conference finals in a season where Derrick Rose played 10 games and All-Star Luol Deng was dealt for cap space.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah, Taj Gibson
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Bulls haven't lost two games in a row in more than two months.
You know this, of course.

Since the Bulls' post-Rose renaissance Part II began with the acquisition of D.J. Augustin in December, picking up as the team coalesced after the Deng trade, the Bulls have been fairly easy to figure out.

You know their defense is fantastic, and thanks to Indiana's recent malaise, it's now No. 1 in the NBA in points against. The offense is still last in the NBA in points, despite Milwaukee's season-long malaise, and dependent on its own defense to create opportunity.

In general, coach Tom Thibodeau's teams haven't been enigmas. They rebound, play defense, score enough, win, and when they're healthy in mind and body, they rarely lose two in a row.

Did you know the Bulls haven't lost back-to-back games in two months?

When the Bulls last dropped two in a row, at New Orleans and Sacramento on Feb. 1 and Feb. 3, they were 23-24.

Since then, the Bulls are 23-8, with a six-game winning streak after beating Minnesota 102-87 Wednesday. Of those wins, 11 are against playoff teams.

They are averaging 100 points in those 23 victories and just 82 points in the eight losses.

While the playoffs are a different beast with one opponent to focus on, the Bulls' past two months give you a pretty good gauge of how it will look -- impressive wins and unwatchable losses, but more of the former and rarely two of the latter in a row.

Not losing back-to-back games has been a staple of Thibodeau's Bulls. That's what a maniacal attention to detail will get you. The Bulls' mistakes are usually crimes of passion, or lack thereof, and bad shooting.

With no Rose, the offense has no savior, so there are games where the shots simply don't fall. Don't discount the team's respect/fear of Thibodeau, either. No one wants that guy yelling at you. It's certainly a good incentive to win.

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And of course, the Bulls are just a good team. They have smart, proud veterans, with possibly the best power forward-center combo in the league in Noah and Taj Gibson, who love playing shutdown defense.

A few of these players were here when Chicago famously went 86 games, from Feb. 7, 2011 to April 2, 2012, without losing two in a row. It was the second-longest such streak in NBA history.

I was at the game when that run ended with a loss to Houston two years ago. I asked Thibodeau, who was doing a slow boil answering questions, if this was one of the worst two-game streaks, win or lose, that Thibodeau had seen in his two-year tenure. This is the interview strategy that I call "poking the bear," because I figured it would induce a passionate response.

"I would say yeah," Thibodeau said. "You know, I felt like we let go of the rope. Usually we're a team that [shows] great fight all year, great resolve. Get down, fight back, never let go of the rope. The last two games I've felt we let go of the rope. We've got to get that fight back. We've got to get that edge back. Right now, we're not playing well. We've got to work our way out of it."

"Let go of the rope" quickly became part of the Thibodeau lexicon, at least among reporters.

When the Bulls last lost back-to-back, with the 99-70 defeat in Sacramento, Thibodeau trotted out a new Thibs-ism when he said, according to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls needed to "get into the circle."

As they're wont to do, the Bulls listened to Thibodeau. They got in the circle, still holding onto that rope, tied together and ready to fight.

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