Chicago Bulls' 5 Must-Win Games of the Early Season

James Davis@@JDouglasDavisAnalyst IOctober 21, 2013

Chicago Bulls' 5 Must-Win Games of the Early Season

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    While the goal of any sporting contest is to be the victor, there are games in which winning carries a special significance.

    The case is no different with the Chicago Bulls.

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau has brought a champion’s swagger back to this franchise by instilling a toughness and intensity unmatched by most other teams.

    After a season of trials and growth during the 2012-13 run, the Bulls are back at full strength now that Derrick Rose has officially returned.

    With a championship being the one goal in mind, they are looking to break through this year and turn their regular-season dominance into playoff success.

    Health will certainly be a determining factor in their quest, but so will the numerous other squads who have improved and are looking to attain the same prize.

    The Bulls will have a number of tests in the first part of the season. Here are some teams they must beat if they are going to return to contender status.

Cleveland Cavaliers, Nov. 11

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    There is a two-pronged logic to this must-win game.

    First, this showdown is personal for Rose as he has never faced Kyrie Irving. Irving’s rookie year was the shortened lockout season.

    The fast-paced, concentrated schedule was so hard on the players that each time the Bulls and Cavaliers were set to play, at least one of the teams' stars were out because of health issues. There is no need to mention what prevented a meeting last season.

    Now the fates have finally realigned to give basketball fans the matchup they have been awaiting.

    This is a rivalry that is long overdue, and Rose has to get the first win.

    From a team perspective, the Cavaliers are a potential sleeper for sneaking into the playoffs.

    With an improved roster, Cleveland may be able get a seventh or eighth seed, placing it on a possible postseason showdown with Chicago, which will be battling the Miami Heat for the conference’s top spot.

    Chicago needs to use this first meeting and every subsequent game to establish alpha-team status and let Cleveland know it is merely a bump in the road during the Bulls' championship journey.

Indiana Pacers, Nov. 16

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    For the first time since the Thibodeau era began, the Bulls are not coming into the season as the reigning Central Division champs. That title belongs to the Pacers.

    While it can be argued that Indiana’s 2012-13 accomplishment was a direct result of Rose being inactive, there’s no denying that it proved its mettle in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

    The Pacers’ size frustrated LeBron and Co. but was not enough to overcome the Heat’s championship pluck.

    While the new frontcourt of the blue and gold boasts the likes of Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola, the Bulls have a formidable counter with Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.

    Indiana’s big-man depth may bother Miami more than it did last year, but the difference between it and Chicago has always been guard play.

    Advantage, Bulls.

    Winning early will show the Pacers that their upgrade to beat South Beach’s finest has kept them vulnerable to a Bulls team with an improved backcourt of Rose and Jimmy Butler.

    Even if by default, Indiana is a team to beat this season, and Chicago must promptly defeat the Pacers to reestablish the East’s pecking order.

Los Angeles Clippers, Nov. 24

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    In one of the most egregious basketball injustices of the last few years, there has been only one head-to-head meeting between Rose and Chris Paul since the latter joined the Clippers.

    It seems like the NBA powers are aware of this and have slated two matchups this season.

    While Chicago will be a road team when these two play each other for the first time, the need to come out a winner is no less important.

    This is one of those games that has what analysts call “playoff implications.”

    The return of Rose catapults his Bulls back into title contention. The Clippers’ acquisition of Doc Rivers as head coach greatly improves their chances of making a Finals run.

    Each of these contests will serve as data-mining endeavors that will be used by both head coaches to devise a master plan should these two meet again in June.

    It will be important for each team not to tip its hand too much, but the Bulls must beat the Clippers early to establish a psychological edge.

Miami Heat, Dec. 5

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    This December contest will mark the second game of the season between the Heat and Bulls, but it will be the first one at the United Center.

    It is important for Chicago to win this contest because it helps establish a habit of maximizing favorable conditions and circumstances to its advantage.

    If history is any indicator, the game is going to be physical, low scoring and nervously close.

    The spectators will clearly be in favor of the Bulls, and their energy should serve as a boon for the home team as they look to beat the squad that has done in back-to-back seasons what Chicago is looking to accomplish for the first time.

    The renewal of a Bulls-Heat rivalry that includes Rose is one of the biggest spectacles of the year.

    Beating Miami is hard enough as it is, and Chicago wants to win against the Heat beyond the regular season.

    Since these are two teams that could likely be battling for the top two playoff seeds, the Bulls need to show that losing in their own building is not an option.

Brooklyn Nets, Dec. 25

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    Rose is injured and sits out one year, and what does he find when he comes back? Another uber-team assembled for the sole purpose of stacking the deck in its favor to win a championship.

    There is a lot buzz surrounding the Nets this year—and with good reason.

    On paper, they boast arguably the best starting five in the league.

    While the hype machine is bound to get perpetually louder with everything Brooklyn does, it is up to the Bulls to show that their team is more substantive than the newly minted Eastern Conference powerhouse.

    Even though its roster doesn’t read like a who’s who of recent NBA champions, Chicago should have an edge because of more-established team chemistry and superior coaching.

    Beating the Nets is vital to putting them on notice that if they want a crack at toppling Miami, they’re going to have to get in line, and their spot is behind Chicago.

    It’s fitting that this game is slotted for the highly rated Christmas block.

    This is a juxtaposition of a team built in the classic star-support player model facing off against the latest team to utilize the superstar alliance blueprint. And it is sure to please fans yearning for tidings of basketball joy.