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3 Reasons the Chicago Bulls Must Step Up Their Game to Contend This Season

William SmithCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2016

3 Reasons the Chicago Bulls Must Step Up Their Game to Contend This Season

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    After blowing a 27-point lead and falling 93-92 to the Milwaukee Bucks in their most recent game, the Chicago Bulls must step-up their game if they are to have any chance of contending in the Eastern Conference.

    The Bulls knocked off the Bucks just two nights prior in Milwaukee, running their winning streak against their foes from Wisconsin to nine games in the process. However, the Bucks erased the enormous deficit and pulled off the unthinkable in Chicago's own building, the United Center.

    The Bulls have been up-and-down all year long, but this game raised serious questions about whether they can contend at all in the East this year, especially since Derrick Rose is far from ready for game action.

    Forget contending for now. If the regular season ended today—thank goodness the Bulls have 68 more games—the Bulls would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs with the No. 9 seed in the conference. With a 6-7 record , there is plenty of blame to go around and plenty of reasons this struggling team must start playing better basketball lest than they fade out of the playoff picture. 

    Here is exactly why the Bulls must elevate their play starting with their next game against Dallas.

Rose Is Still Not Close to Returning

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    While Chicago fans were giddy to hear that their superstar Derrick Rose began cutting on his surgically-repaired left knee two weeks ago, he still is not close to a return to the floor in a Bulls uniform.

    I believe the team is going to be overly cautious with their franchise player and not rush him back even if he seems ready for game action.  Some believe he could be back in January, while others believe February or March makes more sense. Furthermore, others feel the Bulls shouldn't even bring him back because he won't be at 100 percent until next season and it's not worth the risk.

    With their star missing some time last year and as he is on the shelf this year, this team's core has had plenty of time to play together. However, this team has a new look this year with an overhauled bench and has struggled to come together as a unit.

    Rose completely changes this team with his presence on the floor. The current roster must come together and play better basketball so they can at least have a shot at the playoffs when D-Rose returns to action.

The East Is Better This Year

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    The Eastern Conference is no pushover conference this year. 

    The Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are a combined 28-11 and off to fast starts. The Knicks and Nets have surprised with their starts, but they have the talent to have staying power in an improved conference. The current No. 7 seed is the Boston Celtics at 8-6, and the surprising Charlotte Bobcats are 7-6 and in the No. 8 position.

    The Bucks, Hawks, and the Sixers all sit in the middle of a very strong conference this year, leaving the Bulls to play catch-up. 

    In past years, 38-40 wins would probably be good enough to get into the playoffs in the East, but this year that isn't the case.

    With a strong conference that  features more tough games for the Bulls, they have their work cut out and must step up and play as a team that is still capable of success under head coach Tom Thibodeau.

    The defense is tied-fifth in the NBA, allowing just  93.4 points per game, but the offense is struggling at 24th in the league, scoring only 94 points per game.

To Develop a Winning Mentality Late in Games

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    The Bulls have struggled mightily late in ballgames of late. In addition to the choke against Milwaukee, the Bulls have recently dropped winnable games against Houston and Portland, games they couldn't find a way to win. 

    I'm not saying the Bulls should have won those games. I am saying, however, that even without D-Rose for a good chunk of last year, Chicago was able to find ways to win similar games on their way to the league's best record. 

    Luol Deng may have summed it up best in a tweet by ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:

     

    They have to win a majority of their close games if they want to be considered one of the better teams in the East that has a shot at taking on Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    The Bulls simply haven't had the mindset that they will do what it takes to win the game. It is difficult considering they do not have their go-to player on the court, but Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer have to take it upon themselves to get the job done.

    Joakim Noah looks like an All-Star this year, but the Bulls' two most skilled offensive players Deng and Boozer have to create their own shots late in the game. Nate Robinson is capable of doing that, but he is also maddeningly inconsistent and unpredictable. 

    These players won't be perfect in the role of closer, yet this team has to develop a cohesion that gives them toughness late in games. On the defensive side of the ball, they can get stops. They must find a way to score late in games, something they've struggled with in the first 13 games of the season.

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