CHICAGO — It is late in the third quarter, and the United Center is booming. The score is tight, the tension is high and 22,000 wind-scorched Bulls fans are on their feet, screaming.
On a patch of floor near the home bench, Joakim Noah is bouncing in place, hopping and whooping, like a barefoot kid on a hot patch of sand.
The intensity is palpable, profound.
It is March 24. It is a regular-season game—"one of 82," in coach-speak. But there are no ordinary games here, no insignificant nights, no casual Fridays. The Bulls don't do casual. Besides, the Indiana Pacers are in town.
The Bulls are seeking payback for a 12-point loss in Indiana three nights earlier. They will get it with a gritty, soul-cleansing 89-77 victory, a vivid reminder of the Bulls' modus operandi.
"We love the dogfight," says Taj Gibson, the bruising, fifth-year power forward. "We don't like when teams celebrate. We remember everything. … And we hold on to grudges."
The Bulls remember. They remember your slights and your doubts, your disturbing lack of faith. They seem dedicated to a singular mission—to defy expectations, crush conventional wisdom and obliterate everything we think we know about the NBA.
They are going to keep winning through sheer force of will, their lineup depleted but their identity intact. The Bulls were built for this, having assembled a roster based as much on character as ability, and with a coach, Tom Thibodeau, who demands precision regardless of who is on the court.
This weekend, the Bulls will march into the playoffs as a top-four seed, with a win total approaching 50. They will be the proverbial team no one wants to face. It is hard to overstate how delightfully absurd this is.
Let's review what the Bulls are missing:
• Derrick Rose, their all-world former NBA MVP point guard, lost to a knee injury in November.
• Luol Deng, their All-Star forward and second-leading scorer, who the Bulls traded for financial reasons in January.
There are no traditional superstars left in the Bulls' rotation, no scoring maestros, no offensive alpha dogs to carry the load. Imagine the Miami Heat without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Imagine a team that wins solely on hustle and precision.
The Bulls offense ranks 27th out of 30 teams in points per possession. Their leading scorer is averaging 14.9 points per game. That player is D.J. Augustin, let go by Indiana in July and cut by Toronto in December.
Let's review how many NBA teams have at least one player averaging more points than Augustin:
• All of them.
The defending champion Heat have three players who average more points than Augustin. The Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA's worst team, have two players with a higher scoring average than Augustin.
In a game defined by points, the Bulls are shockingly indifferent toward putting the ball in the basket. Yet here they are, outplaying two-thirds of the league, routinely taking down teams that are deeper, healthier, more skilled.
Over the course of the season, the Bulls have beaten Miami and Indiana twice each. They have taken down San Antonio, Houston, Golden State and Dallas. They are 36-15 since Jan. 1, the third-best mark in the league.
Let's consider how rare the Bulls' success is:
• Extraordinarily rare.
Over the last nine full seasons, teams ranking in the bottom five in offensive efficiency have averaged 27 victories. Only three teams posted winning records: the 2004-05 Bulls (47-35), the 2004-05 New Jersey Nets (42-40) and the 2003-04 Houston Rockets (45-37).
These Bulls persevere, of course, primarily because of their defense, which ranks second in the league. But if you go seeking a deeper explanation for Chicago's uncanny success, prepare to be lost in an impenetrable fog of sports cliches about effort and toughness, commitment, dedication and sacrifice.
Here are some cliches:
"We try our best every night, and we genuinely care about winning," says Noah.
"Hard work, dedication. It's that simple," says Gibson.
"We've got a lot of guys that they play for the team, they play for each other," says Thibodeau. "We walk in the locker room after the game; they just care that we won."
These things all sound good. But you hear these phrases in every NBA locker room, every day of the season. Every coach talks about sacrifice and teamwork. Every player talks about hustle and hard work. Everyone says he cares about winning. Every team would like to believe it can overcome the loss of its franchise player, or its top two players. It simply isn't true.
"There are bullet points that everyone uses," says Ron Adams, Thibodeau's former top assistant, "and then there's actually doing it."
The Bulls do it, with a coach who demands absolute commitment to his offensive and defensive principles and a roster of players who can meet his demands. We can praise Thibodeau for his acumen and his consistency, his repetitive insistence that "We have enough to win," but none of that matters without players who buy in. We can admire Noah and Gibson for their relentless passion, but none of that matters without a coach who can effectively deploy it.
"In both cases, with the players and the coach, it's real," says Mike Dunleavy Jr., who joined the Bulls last summer. "It's not some of the time. It's not part of the time. It's all the time. That bring-it-every-night mentality is real. And when you have that, then you really do bring it every night.
"I know what you're saying—'Everyone's going to talk the talk,'" Dunleavy says. "But legitimately this group, coaching staff and players, do it every night."
Dunleavy has played for four franchises and nine head coaches in 12 years, so he has seen the best and the worst of the NBA. He noticed a difference in the Bulls the moment he arrived at the Berto Center, their suburban practice site.
"After practice, most of the teams I've been on, guys scram, guys take off," Dunleavy says. "And here, I'm having a hard time finding a basket and a coach to be able to shoot with, because it stays busy after practice."
This is not an accident. Beyond the cliches and the heart-and-hustle imagery, there is a design at work here, an architecture that prioritizes players of high character and professionalism.
Chicago drafted Gibson, 28, with the 26th pick in 2009 out of USC. He was not a highly skilled offensive player, but he stood out for his intelligence, his toughness and his work ethic. Gibson knew he would fit with the Bulls the moment he met with general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson during the predraft process.
"They just asked me about my life," Gibson recalls. "They asked me like, what are the things you're willing to do to help a team? And I was saying, 'I'll do whatever it takes. If I've got to come off the bench, if I've got to play five minutes. I'm the type of player, I'm going to work my way to whatever you guys need me to do.'"
The questions kept coming: Are you coachable? How much are you willing to sacrifice? Can you play a backup role without animosity toward the player ahead of you?
"Every time, I responded, 'I can do that, as long as it helps the team,'" Gibson recalls. "And that's the kind of belief system we have now here."
Like many forward-thinking teams, the Bulls invest heavily to develop complete profiles of players—not just their ability to dribble or shoot, but their ability to fit in, to take criticism, to be resilient.
"For every scouting report we have on a player, we probably have two or three intel reports," Forman says. "We try to start early and dig and do those things, and try to see guys in a different (setting), try to see them in a practice setting, try to see them on the road. How do they handle a difficult environment when they're on the road? We talk to a lot of people that are around them—not just coaches, but whether it's trainers, doctors, door monitors, back to high school."
The Bulls also ask players to take the Myers-Briggs test to get a gauge of their personality traits.
"We've looked for guys that are serious and committed, guys that are good teammates, that are workers, that are willing to put in the time," Forman says.
Noah, who has blossomed from an impetuous hustle player into an elite defender and playmaker, typifies everything the Bulls seek. He is indisputably the heart and soul of this team. But Noah quickly points to the example set by Rose. Others point to Deng's leadership over the last several years. The more you ask around, the more names emerge. Everyone, it seems, is a leader here.
"Tom sets the culture on the floor," Forman says. "But I think our players have done a good job creating a culture when new guys come in of what the expectations are also."
It doesn't seem to matter who comes and goes. The Bulls boasted one of the league's best benches in 2011-12, with Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Gibson. All but Gibson left as free agents, mostly due to luxury-tax concerns. The Bulls simply replaced them with a new crop—Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich and Nazr Mohammed—and kept right on winning.
The process repeated last summer, with Belinelli and Robinson leaving. The Bulls signed Dunleavy in July and then plucked Augustin off the waiver wire in December. The names change, but the core identity remains.
The Bulls have become, essentially, the San Antonio Spurs of the Eastern Conference.
"They have a system that they stick to," says Adams, who spent three years as Thibodeau's top assistant. "They work at it. He's had players there now, some of the key players, for several years. Tom is single-minded. And he does not detour from that program and what he wants to get done. In a certain sense, that is the strength of what they do, in that they have a huge and successful foundation that they've laid. And they keep going back to it."
Just spending a season with the Bulls can alter a player's image. Korver and Belinelli were regarded as middling-to-weak defenders until they blended into Thibodeau's system.
"These are not inherently great defensive players," Adams says. "But they were players with big hearts who knew how to play the game, bought in and really got better and really enhanced their futures."
It does, however, take a certain mental and emotional fortitude to thrive here. Thibodeau is every bit as demanding as his reputation suggests, and his relentless, hard-driving approach can make a lesser player wilt.
"Not everybody can really tolerate the kind of yelling," Gibson says of Thibodeau.
"You've got to think about it—he yells, every play, no matter what. Practice, he was yelling at us today. It's hardcore, every day. He's on us, every day. He's been around a long time, and we have a lot of good stories. But you have to really be a real coachable player and a hard-nosed, tough kind of guy to be here."
Gibson adds, "They did a real tremendous job of picking the right kind of guys to fit the puzzle."
One can only imagine how dominant the Bulls might be with a complete roster and a healthy superstar. Chicago won 62 games and made the conference finals in 2010-11, with Rose winning Most Valuable Player—the only MVP trophy not claimed by LeBron James in the past five years.
The Bulls were ascendant, the clearest threat to a potential Heat dynasty. But Rose has not played a full season since then. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in April 2012, ruining the Bulls' postseason and crimping their aspirations in 2012-13. Chicago won 45 games anyway—and outmuscled the Nets in an inspiring first-round victory before succumbing to the Heat in the conference semifinals.
It was an incredible, inspiring run, a testament to perseverance and belief—the stuff a thousand sports movies are made of. Given the Bulls' makeup, it should perhaps not have been that surprising, even if fans and commentators wrote them off the moment Rose went down.
But to do it again? To grind through another season solely on defense and effort, and expect to make an impact in the playoffs? That's too much to ask of any team.
The Bulls were enjoying their renewed status as contenders last fall, with Rose healthy at last and back in the lineup. More than a few pundits anointed Chicago as the greatest threat to Miami's three-year reign atop the East.
Rose's right knee, the good one, buckled on Nov. 22, in a game against Portland. He had torn the meniscus, requiring another season-ending surgery. Even for the Bulls, this seemed too much to bear.
"Derrick going down, it's as disappointing as losing a loved one," Noah says. "There was a mourning period on this team. And the games just kept coming. The thing that's funny with this league: Other teams, they smell blood, they know. It's like a wounded animal. As soon as a team is wounded, they're coming in for the kill. And there's no mercy."
The Bulls lost that night, their second in a row, part of a four-game losing streak. They lost four straight again in mid-December, dropping them to 9-16. They have lost consecutive games only once since then—a two-game hiccup Feb. 1 and 3.
"When he's on the court playing well, we feel like we can win the ring," Noah said of Rose. "With all the adversity that we've been through, I think it's made this team even more resilient than ever."
Express surprise at the Bulls' fortitude, and they seem almost offended. Express an admiration for what they have accomplished, and Thibodeau answers with a simple, "Thank you."
Not that everyone was surprised.
"We knew they would get back into the thick of things," says the Pacers' David West, "because of how hard they play defensively, and how much of a system (Thibodeau) demands. … The fact that they got players that hold each other accountable sort of forces you to either get on board or get off the ship."
Even the Jan. 7 trade of Deng—a money-saving move that came across as a concession speech—could not derail the Bulls. Thibodeau simply adjusted the playbook, put the ball in Noah's hands and turned him into a point-center.
Noah is averaging 7.2 assists per game since Feb. 6—a rate that would place him among the top point guards in the NBA—along with 11.1 rebounds and 13.9 points. He will be the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson in 1993-94. His four triple-doubles rank second in the league, behind Indiana's Lance Stephenson (five).
Without Rose and Deng, the Bulls offense is necessarily limited. But they do have six players averaging double figures in scoring, and any one of them can have a breakout night. Nine different players have led the team in scoring this season, including Noah and Gibson, who have both grown tremendously at the offensive end.
To an extent, the Bulls underscore our collective bias in how we view players and teams. Even in this era of advanced stats, we too often define greatness by point totals, by looking for the player who puts up 25 points a night, instead of the player who is dedicated to making the extra pass or setting the hard screen or getting "a big box-out," as Noah says excitedly.
The Bulls are a great argument for how much we overvalue scorers, and how much we undervalue all of the other qualities that make up a winning team. They are also fantastically entertaining, even if they never reach 100 points.
They play to each other's strengths. They cover each other's weaknesses. They abide by Thibodeau's five principles: defense, rebounding, limiting turnovers, playing inside-out, sharing the ball.
"When you have a group of guys that are willing to sacrifice what may be best for them for what's best for the team, that's when something special can happen," Thibodeau says.
It's impossible not to marvel over the Bulls' resolve, the way they have turned a catalogue of cliches into a daily guide for living. You watch Noah hopping, chirping, clapping, exulting, and you wonder whether there is anything this team cannot overcome. A team with lesser character would be calculating its lottery odds right now.
The Bulls name lends itself to easy puns, and it is tempting to exhaust them all. So let's exhaust them:
• the UnstoppaBulls
• the UnflappaBulls
• the UnbreakaBulls
• the UnkillaBulls
"They're going to believe when no one else believes," Thibodeau says. "You have to make a decision: Are you going to accept the fate that others are trying to tell you you have? Or are you going to have a will and determination to overcome whatever circumstances you're facing? And these guys have chosen to fight."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.