What in the world are we to make of the Chicago Bulls now, one week short of the NBA playoffs? Do we believe they're the team that lost by 42 to the Sacramento Kings a month ago or the team that stopped the Miami Heat's historic 27-game winning streak? Come postseason, are we to expect the Bulls that lost back-to-back games this week to completely awful Toronto and Detroit, or the team that came from 17 down Thursday night to snap the New York Knicks' 13-game winning streak?
They've become quite the tease, these Bulls, because they've taken down the Heat in Miami, beaten the Celtics in Boston, swept the season series from the Knicks ... yet lost at home to the Hornets, Suns and Bobcats. Certainly, opponents with streaks get the Bulls attention. Not only did they stop 40 games of Heat and Knicks streaks, but the Bulls were a bad goaltending call away from stopping Denver's club-record winning streak at 11.
They've got a bit of big-game hunter in them but can't be bothered with the scrub teams, which for the unabashed optimist should mean good things for the Bulls in the postseason since there are no scrubs (OK, Milwaukee) in the playoffs. Good luck finding sensible explanations for why this has been the case the entire season. It's not like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Richard "Rip" Hamilton, Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich played against the Miamis of the world but missed the games against the Suns and Bobcats.
Actually, Carlos Boozer had about the best explanation after Thursday's win over the Knicks when he said, "I know we've had terrible losses that are just hard to explain. ... But because we've got essentially a starting five out of the lineup hurt, there are no gimme games for us. Nothing is going to be easy, not Charlotte or Toronto or whomever. We have to grind it out. Every game is going to be a grind; there's no choice in the matter."
If you read between the lines -- and these words are mine, not Boozer's -- you'll come to believe that the Bulls ready themselves for an alley fight against the likes of Miami and the Knicks and Pacers, whom they also beat recently, but think they're going to beat chumps like the Suns and Hornets on talent, without scrapping, and it almost never works. They see the Knicks and their 13-game winning streak and know there's no chance to win unless they play to their nature.
Now, whether this is fool's gold, meaning it can be done once a week but not four times in a series, will determine whether the Bulls will have a meaningful playoff run or be bounced in the first round. Goodness, they scrapped Thursday night with the Knicks, well, after falling behind 23-6. Carmelo Anthony got his 36 but Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler forced him to miss 21 of 34 shots, and Hinrich/Hamilton/Butler forced J.R. Smith to miss 16 of 27. One reason a good many players around the league believe the Bulls would beat the Knicks in a seven-game series, not that it'll come to pass, is that guys like Steve Novak don't even register against the Bulls. Novak, who torches other people, is 3-for-11 against the Bulls in four games this season.
Meanwhile, the Knicks had no answer whatsoever for Butler or Nate Robinson. If you want to look for silver linings in a season made maddening by Bulls injuries, Butler and Robinson are what you've got. Robinson, for all his flaws, is the most exciting player on the team. For sheer excitement, he damn near equals Rose. The Bulls absolutely, positively cannot beat any playoff team they'll face without Robinson having an impact on the game. OK, he's not going to go for 35 on 10-for-18 shooting as he did against the Knicks, but he's essential to their chances. And Butler looks like the two-way swing player the Bulls having been searching to find, but with a bonus in that he's on the All-"I'm-with-him-in-an-alley-fight" team. Jimmy Butler ain't scurred. Counting everybody on both teams, guess who played more time (50 minutes, 17 seconds) than anybody in Thursday night's overtime game? Yes, Butler. Some players' efficiency plummets the more minutes they're forced to play. Butler gets better. His decision-making gets better every week; he increases the range on his jump shot. He grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds, blocked three shots and committed zero turnovers in 50 minutes. It's a steal to get this kid at the bottom of the first round in the draft.
Of course, these were the Good Bulls who swept the season series from the Knicks. They moved the ball expertly (Rip Hamilton had eight assists and no turnovers), which led to 16 fast-break points. Conversely, the Bad Bulls turn it over way more than Thursday's eight times. The Bad Bulls are so scoring-challenged they could never think of scoring 105 points in regulation of a playoff game. The Bad Bulls don't make 81 percent of their foul shots, hell, don't even get to the foul line for 37 tries. The Bad Bulls don't play the kind of defense that forces an opponent to shoot 40 percent.
The talk, even the private conversations afterward in both locker rooms, was about the playoffs. The Bulls think they can win a first-round playoff series, and the Knicks think the Bulls can win a first-round playoff series with the Nets if that's the matchup. The Knicks, fresh off a 13-game winning streak, think they can hold on to the No. 2 spot and, especially with a healthy Tyson Chandler in the lineup, beat the Celtics in the first round. They Knicks are confident to the bone that in Carmelo Anthony they have a weapon even Miami will be hard-pressed to handle.
Of course, Noah means nearly as much to the Bulls as Chandler does to the Knicks. To beat the Nets, the Bulls will need both Noah and Taj Gibson to be relatively close to full strength. So this is where the direction of the season goes, especially for the Bulls. It's nearly 365 days now of health reports, from D-Rose on down the roster. What we learned more than anything in the games against Miami and the Knicks is that the Bulls, with a full roster other than Rose, are a threat to anybody in the Eastern Conference. Kurt Rambis said Thursday on "SportsCenter" that he thinks the Bulls, because of their defense with Gibson and Noah healthy, are a bigger threat than the Knicks to Miami.
It seems like a completely far-fetched notion when you see that the Bulls' last five losses are to the Wizards, Pistons, Raptors, Mavericks and Trail Blazers … five teams with losing records. But the last four wins: Knicks, at Brooklyn, Heat, Pacers; that's all four teams above the Bulls in the Eastern Conference. With the Raptors, Heat, Magic and Wizards remaining on the Bulls' schedule (Miami is the only winning team), it wouldn't be a shock if the Bulls lost three of four, slipped into the sixth spot, and had to face the Pacers or Knicks in the first round, both of which are tougher to beat than the Nets.
Then again, feeling threatened ... looking across at an opponent most everybody thinks is a better team is what has worked in the Bulls' favor this entire upside-down season.