CHICAGO -- The Bulls had every excuse in the world to roll over and lose on Saturday night.
They were playing their fourth game in five nights. They were playing without Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton. They played the second half without Taj Gibson (ejected) and Kirk Hinrich (elbow injury). And they were playing one of the hottest teams in the league in the New York Knicks, who just knocked off the Miami Heat on Thursday night without Carmelo Anthony.
The deck, as it has been so often early in this season, was stacked against Tom Thibodeau's team.
Yet as has also been the case so many times in the past two years, the Bulls found a way to win a game they probably shouldn't have. In a season full of ups and downs, the Bulls pulled off their most impressive win the same way they racked up 112 regular-seasons victories over the past two seasons:
"The will to win," a tired-looking Joakim Noah explained.
"We just wanted to win really bad tonight,” he said. “And I think it was our best win of the [year]. Guys were exhausted, but that's what it's all about -- just fighting, fighting adversity. I think we've been fighting the refs maybe a little bit too much and it's taking away from what's important, but overall I feel like it was a great team effort, a lot of guys stepped up.
“I think overall it was a great team effort and that's the character of this team and it's been the character of this team for years. We're just resilient."
The Bulls haven't played up to Thibodeau's standards consistently this season, but that doesn't mean they have forgotten their identity. The players might be different, but the DNA of this team doesn't change. Thibodeau squeezes every ounce of energy as if he were looking for the last bit of toothpaste in the tube.
"It comes down to knowing what your job is and going in and doing your job," Thibodeau said. "You're going to have injuries and a lot of different things are going to crop up during the season. When that opportunity comes up, you have to step up and get it done."
It's that never-say-die mentality that helped the Bulls prevail Saturday night. Thibodeau wouldn't let them give into their exhaustion. He wouldn't allow them to give into the easy excuse.
"The fight, the grit, you got to be nitty-gritty and he loves that," said Bulls guard Nate Robinson. "He loves to take the challenge and play as hard as we possibly can, no matter what. When teams give us their best shot, we come back and give them our best shot.”
“He's kind of old-school; with Thibs it's like watching Muhammad Ali and George Foreman go at it,” Robinson said. “It's just back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, may the best man win. It's like that mentality, may the best team win."
The Bulls might not be the best team, but they were on this night because they went back to their roots. Their defense was on point and they made just enough shots down the stretch to seal the victory. As he watched in the locker room with Hamilton, a frustrated Gibson couldn't help but see the similarities to the Bulls' teams of years gone by.
"We've been playing like this forever it seems," Gibson said. "Every year that I've been playing we always have one or two guys hurt, crucial players hurt, and we always just continue to step up. Every year we've got guys with great motors that understand [and have] the ability to come in and step up."
That's why this win means a little more to this group. They knew they hadn't knocked off a truly elite-level team this season, and they wanted to prove they could do it against a myriad of circumstances that did not go in their favor.
No, the Knicks did not have Anthony or Amar'e Stoudemire, but the Bulls didn't have Rose or Hamilton ... and they still found a way. It should serve them well over the next few weeks as the schedule becomes more treacherous.
"It's good for us," Bulls forward Luol Deng said of beating the Eastern Conference-leading Knicks. "I think it's more about us.”
“We've lost those games but I think the more that we play together -- it takes a while for a team to get together,” Deng said. “I'm not saying we've figured it out and we've got it down, but we're a lot better tonight than we were in the beginning of the season. As long as we stay on it and keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep on getting better as the season goes on."