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We're No. 1:
L.A. Lakers | Boston Celtics | NY Knicks | Chicago Bulls | Miami Heat | Dallas Mavericks
They don't have the championship know-how of the Lakers or Spurs. They don't have a Big Three like the Heat or Celtics. They don't have a dominant big man like Orlando's Dwight Howard or even an indomitable duo like Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
What the Chicago Bulls have is preposterously old-fashioned and perhaps even a touch corny: a team where the total is so much greater than the sum of the parts. With six weeks left in the regular season, the Bulls have evolved into a charming little ensemble whose cast members are certain that they've got everything they need to win it all this year, most notably superior defense and the chemistry of a Little League team.
|Derrick Rose is the catalyst for the Bulls, whose favorable schedule down the stretch makes the East's No. 1 seed a possibility.|
Yes, under the right circumstances ... if they earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference, which would enable them to avoid the Celtics or Heat until the East finals. Given that a game or two is all that's likely to separate Boston, Miami and Chicago at the end of the regular season then winning one of three road games remaining this week -- Wednesday at Atlanta, Friday at Orlando and Sunday at Miami -- could be essential to finishing first in the East. The Bulls, after thrashing the Wizards in Washington on Monday night, improved to 15-13 on the road ... OK, but hardly the stuff of champions.
Carlos Boozer is easily the Bulls player with the most meaningful playoff experience, seeing as he was teamed with Deron Williams to lead the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference finals four years ago. He knows which ingredient is the most important in his recipe for reaching the NBA Finals.
"As we fine-tune for the playoffs," Boozer said, "the No. 1 thing is, can we win on the road? If we want to go as far as we believe we can, we've got to be able to beat Boston on the road, to beat Orlando on the road, to beat Miami on the road, to beat Atlanta on the road."
Luol Deng, who is beginning to emerge as something of a Scottie Pippen to Rose's Michael Jordan, has his own recipe. "Staying healthy is at the top of my list," Deng said, pointing out that if Boozer and Joakim Noah had been healthy all season, the Bulls would almost certainly have a better road record.
Noah, who has 16, 17 and 11 rebounds in three of his four games since returning to the lineup, is fine with winning more road games. But he identified something he believes has helped the Bulls win while he and Boozer were injured; in fact, Chicago hasn't lost three straight games this season, something a grand total of three teams in the NBA could claim as of Tuesday.
"The NBA is so much about managing the highs and lows," Noah said, "which I think coach [Tom] Thibodeau has done an incredible job with that. He's got a borderline sickness about it. The other night he called a 7:30 a.m. meeting to talk and we're like, 'Come on, Thibs!' But we know he's right to do it."
Sometimes you put teams together, and while the talent appears to be there, the chemistry isn't. When we have practice at 11 everybody is there by 9:30. I knew in the summer we had it. I'm talking July and August. Everybody except D-Rose was practicing, and he wasn't there because he was helping the national team win gold.” -- Carlos Boozer
So much of what the Bulls credit for their success seems to have little to do with X's and O's, even though they are second in the all-important defensive category of opponents' field goal percentage. Talk to people in most basketball circles and they'll tell you the Bulls are short on scoring, specifically shooting, and it's likely to rise up and bite them during the playoffs when easy baskets are at a premium and half-court execution is a prerequisite.
Asked about the observation that the Bulls don't have enough outside shooting, Deng said, "Shooting? We have defense. The way New York plays, you need shooters. You're not giving Kyle [Korver] the ball or giving me the ball and ask us to create shots. That's not the way we play."
The Bulls figure everybody plays defense, which should trigger transition offense that Rose creates (and sometimes Noah, probably the most creative passing big man in the NBA today). While it's a simple formula, it will produce enough points.
Although most observers felt the Bulls needed to acquire a proven veteran shooter before the trade deadline, Bulls players were as adamant as management: We're fine. The notion that the club would bring in a guy like, say, Denver's J.R. Smith, which might affect the team's chemistry, was a risk nobody on the team wanted to take.
"Sometimes you put teams together," Boozer said, "and while the talent appears to be there, the chemistry isn't. When we have practice at 11 everybody is there by 9:30. I knew in the summer we had it. I'm talking July and August. Everybody except D-Rose was practicing, and he wasn't there because he was helping the national team win gold."
True enough, Boozer began talking up the group's chemistry long before training camp. It's not that the Bulls are short on talent; Rose is the only All-Star, but Noah would have been worthy had he not suffered the hand injury and Deng probably should have made the team. But no one in their right mind is going to argue the Bulls are as physically talented as the Celtics or Heat.
|Carlos Boozer saw good chemistry in the Bulls even before training camp.|
Rose and Boozer, in separate conversations, were quick to point out that the Bulls have no jerks and knuckleheads, nobody coaches find difficult, nobody who resists practicing or takes shortcuts or is, to use one player's description, a "stereotypical NBA egomaniac."
Boozer thought back to late summer after he signed with the Bulls as a free agent. "I knew we had a superstar point guard and a top-five center in Joakim," he said. "But the thing that was so noticeable was the chemistry we all had right away."
Still, there is a checklist the Bulls will have to pay some attention to, perhaps as early as the first round since the Knicks would be a formidable opponent and the Sixers would be pesky (which is why finishing first in the Eastern Conference and facing the Pacers or Bobcats is the preferred way to go).
The Bulls are the best rebounding team in the league, and their additional possessions from controlling the boards help offset the lack of high-percentage shooting. Noah and Boozer, who are quite capable of combining for 25 rebounds a game for an entire series, are the critical elements in the Bulls' size advantage over the Knicks, Magic and Heat. Beyond Noah and Boozer, the Bulls have Taj Gibson, Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik, a strength not only when it comes to size but also bench depth.
When it comes to size, defense, rebounding and reserve depth, the Bulls match up favorably with any team in the playoffs. But there's more to the checklist.
Deng and Korver have to aggressively look to score, Deng from everywhere and Korver from beyond the arc. They have to keep Rose from having to carry too much of the scoring load, and recently have demonstrated they know that.
While Rose is averaging 25 points per game, the Bulls might be better off with him averaging 18-20 and spreading the ball around to Boozer, Deng, Noah and Korver, all of whom can lead the team in scoring on a given night.
So, how reasonable are the chances that the Bulls can pull all of these elements together? How about a 7 on the 1-10 scale? If there's a hesitation in getting too carried away with the Bulls' chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this June, it's that the vast majority of NBA players, even the greatest ones, have their hearts broken before finding great playoff success.
Magic Johnson is an exception, as is Tim Duncan, though both came into the league playing alongside future Hall of Fame teammates (think Kareem and David Robinson, respectively). But even the likes of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Shaq, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James (still) all suffered postseason heartbreak before reaching the NBA Finals.
Folks who point out that Boston's Big Three won their first time together conveniently forget that Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett all had rather crushing playoff failures before hooking up in Boston.
Rose, who is simply the Most Valuable Player in the league this season, is hell-bent on breaking away from that trend. "He's special," Boozer said of Rose. "The kid is special."
He'll have to be for the Bulls to beat, potentially, Miami and Boston, the two preseason favorites, to get to the NBA Finals. Then again, Rose has known playoff disappointment in his first two seasons, and he's proven to be as stubborn, as willful, and as able to put his imprint on the game as any superstar, even LeBron and D-Wade, KG and D-Howard.
The Bulls were an afterthought when the season began, rarely considered a serious threat to the Celtics, Lakers, Heat ... even the Mavericks and Magic. They're closer to title contention than we thought, even if they expected it, perhaps the wildest of wild cards in the upcoming playoffs.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.