Inside the Chicago Bulls' locker room after the final game of the regular season Wednesday, there seemed to be a sense of relief that coexisted with a sense of excitement, confidence and calm.
Rip Hamilton joked with Luol Deng. Taj Gibson checked his cellphone while speaking openly to the media about going up against his hometown team, the Brooklyn Nets, in the first round of the playoffs. Nate Robinson spit Jordan sneakerology to Malcolm Thomas. Marquis Teague ate chicken wings. Coach Tom Thibodeau left the postgame podium with a half-smile on his face.
When I told him he didn't even look nervous going into the playoffs, the half-smile went full. "Man, I'm always nervous." Then he walked away.
So now that they're here, excuse me, we're (because we are kinda all in this together, aren't we?) here; now that we can finally put this impossible-to-figure-out, oft-times schizophrenic regular season behind us; now that we avoided going up against the Pacers to open the playoffs (Indiana is on a mission, Brooklyn not so much), what can we expect from this team that at times this season has been the Eastern Conference version of the Lakers?
Now that we've seen what the Bulls are capable of doing, both good and bad, what can we honestly expect from a team that was responsible for ending two of the longest winning streaks in the NBA this season yet lost four of their last five games prior to the final week of the season and barely won their final game at home against the Wizards after having a 21-point lead?
When a team overachieves and underachieves in the same season it is almost impossible to figure them out. It becomes more impossible (if that's possible) to try to make sense of or predict what they are going to do next.
The Bulls have the Nets next. A team that has done all season what the Bulls only partially did: not live up to or exceed expectations. There are potentially seven games between them. Seven games (or fewer) that will tell us who this 2012-13 Derrick Rose-less Bulls team really is.
"I expect us to be much sharper," Gibson said. "We've been through this the last couple of years, but we have guys on this team that are really eager to get (play) in the playoffs and are ready to play.
"We're about to see how mentally tough we are."
See, the problem with expectations is that they are just that: expectations. We expect something to happen. We expect something in return. We expect results.
With the Bulls, with this team in particular, we have come to expect the unexpected. All season long they've been the underdawgs, not dogs. They have shown us the flashes of greatness that at times have led us into the dangerous arena of thinking that Rose may not be needed back to get them, excuse me again ... us, to the conference finals. They've displayed, at times, a resolve that makes us look at all of the injuries and adversities they've had to face and overcome this season and agree that 45 wins is close to a miracle.
"The playoffs are a different animal," Kirk Hinrich said. "We've seen a lot this year. Been through a lot of adversity. We've had to win in a lot of different ways this year. We believe that (since) we are finally starting to get healthy and with a couple of days of preparation, when the intensity picks up -- as it does in the playoffs -- we feel like we are a team that has played with high intensity all year. So we're just going to have to crank (the intensity) up to another level."
So don't expect surprises. Don't expect anything different than what we've already seen. Just an elevated level.
Don't expect Nate to all of a sudden be able to run an offense for 48 minutes while being our J.R. Smith/Jamal Crawford. Don't expect Rip to have on-the-court flashbacks of 2004 and 2005. Don't expect Jimmy Butler to live up to his "Buckets" nickname and average 20 points a game. Don't expect Joakim's plantar fasciitis to automatically disappear. And don't expect Derrick to come back.
What we can expect (and demand, and hope for, and pray for) from the Bulls during the playoffs is consistency. Win or lose. At this point Thibs should have this team with a very clear understanding of who they are and what they need to do on a night-to-night, game-to-game, series-to-series basis to overachieve now that the playoffs are here.
For the first time in three years entering the NBA postseason, the Bulls are the underdawgs. Will be throughout. And surpassing expectations is what real underdawgs do best.