If you needed any more proof that the Chicago Bulls are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference this season, it was evident in their last two games against the Miami Heat.
On March 14, Derrick Rose didn't even play for the Bulls, as he battled a groin injury. They won, 106-102, as backup John Lucas III went off for 24 points. In their latest affair, Rose shot 1-of-13 from the floor. The Bulls won that game too, 96-86, when backup C.J. Watson sent the game into overtime with a three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation.
The fact of the matter is, the Bulls have become a better team than last season, while the Heat have remained largely the same.
"Team" is the key word here. The Bulls have amazing depth and chemistry. Beyond Rose, Joakim Noah also struggled on April 12, posting just five points and four rebounds. But the Bulls' well-oiled bench produced when called on, and that is what distances the Bulls from the Heat this season.
Kyle Korver scored 17 points. Watson posted 16 points and nine rebounds. And Taj Gibson recorded 11 points and five rebounds. The Bulls' starters had a plus-minus of -63. The Bulls' bench had a plus-minus of +113.
The Bulls are making the case this season that you can't buy a championship. You must have chemistry, with multiple players contributing, to win a title. The Dallas Mavericks proved that against the Heat last season.
Very few teams can get away with their superstar playing poorly and still win a game against an elite team. But the Bulls proved that their superstar can be absent (both figuratively and literally) and it's not the end-all. The result is the best points differential in the league this season.
The difference between the Bulls and the Heat is that the Bulls have grown better together and have had more time to grow. The Heat, though still an elite team, have yet to consistently play well together. That may come in time, but perhaps not as soon as people expected.
The Bulls have the makings of a team that will not only make it to the NBA Finals, but challenge for their first championship since 1998.