The Chicago Bulls thrive when being tested by adversity.
Despite losing point guard Derrick Rose to yet another knee injury in December—whom Joakim Noah referred to in an interview with Bulls.com’s Chuck Swirsky as Chicago’s “one MVP”—the Bulls have continued to overcome challenges by playing head coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive-minded, disciplined style.
That mindset was on full display against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on March 9. The Bulls gritted out a 95-88 overtime win behind a masterful performance from Noah.
The talented big man did a little bit of everything on Sunday, finishing with 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks.
“Dominant, dominant,” teammate Taj Gibson said of Noah’s play, per Sports Illustrated’s Brian Hamilton. The Sixth Man of the Year candidate added the following:
He was talking trash to them the whole night. He was in their ear the whole night, letting it be known that he was going after every rebound, he was going to try to score every time he gets it. He was really telling them everything he was going to do. I could see on their faces he was frustrating them. I think he’s playing MVP-style basketball. He’s our leader, and it showed. He led us to this victory.
With the win, Chicago knotted the season series with the Heat at two games apiece. The Bulls won’t play Miami again unless they meet in the postseason, but they’ve proven on a consistent basis that they can compete with anyone. Noah’s mentally tough crew has collected wins against the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors throughout 2013-14.
D-Rose may be sidelined with injury, but that doesn’t change the fact that nobody wants to face Chicago in a postseason series.
Defense and Pace
Despite having an absolutely anemic offense that ranks 29th in offensive efficiency by scoring just 98.6 points per 100 possessions, Chicago sits comfortably at eight games over .500 due to its elite defense.
Thibodeau’s team ranks second in defensive efficiency by allowing only 97.8 points per 100 possessions. The entire roster has bought into the system partly by feeding off Noah’s energy and motor, and that’s been the key to success for the Bulls thus far.
Because Chicago dictates a slower, more methodical pace, it can break down and disrupt fast-paced, hyper-offensive teams that like to get out and run in the open floor. As a result, it denies teams the opportunity to score easy baskets and get good looks.
By getting to play the way they’re most comfortable on a nightly basis, the Bulls have all but ensured that they’ll remain competitive and play in close games. Their poor offense hasn’t hindered their ability to win games consistently, either, because the defense gets so many stops—Chicago is 23-10 since the New Year.
“Never Say Die” Attitude
Despite losing Rose to another injury, Luol Deng via trade to save the organization money and the tandem of Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson via free agency last summer—thus hindering the team’s overall depth—Chicago has just kept plugging along.
Playing in the weaker Eastern Conference has admittedly helped the Bulls stay afloat, but contributions from lesser-known role players have been the saving grace.
Rookie guard Tony Snell, for example, is knocking down a combined 41.5 percent of his three-pointers from the left corner, left wing and top of the key—his percentages are above league average in each spot, according to NBA.com.
D.J. Augustin, though—who was picked up in December after getting waived by the Toronto Raptors—has continued to provide the offensive spark this team has needed to stay competitive.
His defense is admittedly a work in progress, but he’s been on an offensive tear in March. In five games during the month so far, the 26-year-old point guard is averaging 20.2 points per game on 51.7 percent shooting from the field and 46.2 percent shooting from three-point range.
Those numbers certainly aren’t sustainable, but he’s provided Coach Thibodeau with a huge offensive boost sans Rose.
Much like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Thibs has the ability to put a plethora of guys in a position to succeed.
Perhaps the most important factor working in the Bulls’ favor is experience from veteran leaders.
Noah, Carlos Boozer and Gibson have all played significant roles in the postseason. Even 24-year-old guard Jimmy Butler got valuable experience by starting all 12 games for Chicago in the 2013 playoffs—notching 40.8 minutes per contest.
After a gutsy win against one of the league’s elite teams, Bulls players kept their focus razor sharp.
“I want what they have -- a championship,” Noah said after the win against Miami, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). “One day, we’re going to have to get through those guys.”
How far with the Chicago Bulls go in the 2014 playoffs?
Butler echoed that sentiment by saying, “It’s still a good win. It gives us confidence we can beat them. But … in the playoffs, like Thibs said, we can’t go around them; you’re going to have to go through them.”
As NBA analyst Bill Simmons said during the broadcast of Chicago’s game against the Heat, the Bulls aren’t scared to go up against their heated rival.
Playing the two-time defending champs is always a tough matchup, but Noah and Co. relish the opportunity.
“We played with a lot of hate today,” Noah said, per Hamilton. “A lot of hate.”
Noah has channeled his envy of the Heat’s success into a net positive for his game, which only makes Chicago better when it plays a roster that has accomplished so much in recent years.
The Bulls certainly aren’t the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference in 2014, but counting them out would be a huge miscalculation.