It doesn't take much to shoot up the Eastern Conference standings this season. Which is why the Chicago Bulls' recent three-game winning streak has them within one game of the No. 3 seed.
Just over a month ago, the Bulls were reeling. They were six games under .500 at 12-18 and the sting of losing Derrick Rose to another knee injury was still fresh.
But true to the character these guys have shown under Tom Thibodeau, they came out of the rough patch swinging. Behind a renewed commitment to their defense-first approach, the Bulls are 15-7 in the new calendar year and could cause some headaches in the NBA playoffs.
Only three teams have a better record than the Bulls since Jan. 1—all three are in the West. In its own conference, Chicago is tied with the Indiana Pacers in 2014 and is ahead of the No. 2- and 3-seeded Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors.
So, what's been the difference? And can it continue into the home stretch and postseason?
Over the Bulls' first 30 games, they were fifth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 98.4 points per 100 possessions. For perspective, the Pacers were first at 93.2.
During the 15-7 run, that number is 96.9. Only the league-leading Pacers have been better at 94.2.
That increase in defensive efficiency has coincided with an increase in minutes and responsibility for reserve forward Taj Gibson. In 2013, he averaged 27.1 minutes. In 2014, he's up to 32.5.
And when Gibson's on the floor with Joakim Noah, the Bulls are a terrifying defensive unit:
|Defensive Duo of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson|
|With Noah and Gibson on the Floor||Overall||With Noah and Gibson off the Floor|
|Steals per 100 Possessions||7.5||7.1||8.1|
|Blocks per 100 Possessions||7.7||6.2||5.0|
The extra minutes have been big for Gibson's offense as well. He's taken advantage of extra opportunities inside this season:
Those two inside aren't the only reasons for Chicago's improvement, but they've certainly led the charge.
Noah alone has averaged 13.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.8 blocks since Jan. 1. His activity on both ends of the floor has an infectious quality that seems to inspire his teammates. It also has to irk opponents.
I had a teammate in college who, though obviously less talented, played with the same kind of intensity as Noah. He had non-stop energy on offense and defense and attacked every rebound as if it might seal a game. It drove me crazy when I had to go against him in practice, but I loved it in games.
That kind of play from Noah, in combination with the rise of Taj Gibson, could be trouble for the Pacers or Heat if they have to play the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs.
Especially since Noah wants to wreak even more havoc than he already has. According to the Associated Press (via ESPN), Noah said, "We're happy, but we're not satisfied. We're hungry," after the Nets third straight win on Feb. 13.
It would be bold to claim that Chicago could beat either of those teams in a seven-game series right now, but you can be sure neither would want to play the Bulls before playing the other.
The energy either Eastern Conference contender would have to expend to knock off the never-say-die Bulls could put them at a disadvantage heading into the next round.
The two-time defending champion Heat could have a particularly tough time. Their struggles inside in the "Big Three" era have been well-documented. It's why they signed Greg Oden this past summer.
And Miami's already lost a game to the Bulls this season (they're 1-1 against each other overall). On Dec. 5, Chicago topped Miami 107-87, before it started playing better.
The season series between the Bulls and Pacers is also knotted at one game apiece. And Noah and Gibson may be one of the only duos in the league who can go blow for blow with Indiana's huge frontline.
That's probably not something Indiana—or for that matter, any Eastern Conference team—looks forward to having to do against this potential spoiler.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.