The Bulls make the paint impenetrable in the early goings of the April 14 game between the teams, creating four Orlando turnovers before six minutes have passed. The younger, tanking Magic are hapless against the league’s best defense.
“I want us to play well down the stretch,” coach Tom Thibodeau says, when asked before the game if the Bulls are looking at the standings to see whether it’s the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Bobcats or Washington Wizards they’ll face in Round 1. “Whatever happens happens. I want us to be focused on improvement, and we’ll take it from there...I’m just worried about tonight.”
And as the first quarter progresses, the Bulls give Jimmer Fredette rare playing time. He’s filling in for Most Improved Player of the Year candidate D.J. Augustin, who’s been excused to celebrate the birth of a child.
When tenured veteran Nazr Mohammed (averaging a mere seven minutes per game) subs in for Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Joakim Noah, it seems that Thibodeau, for once, might even be resting his best players. More important matchups are on the horizon, and the intensity shown at the game’s beginning is a switch that is easily flipped on and off against such an inferior opponent.
Plus, in the locker room, the Bulls' magnetized Eastern Conference standings board is accurate for the first time in weeks. Usually this board is an out-of-date mess, reflecting the team’s lack of concern beyond the process of constant self-improvement. But now the Bulls look to have their eyes on the prize of the postseason—not the Magic.
Then, despite Fredette's surprisingly extended minutes (Thibodeau yells more corrections at him from the bench than he does any other player, and that’s saying something), the Bulls’ premier rotation is right back in the fray to provide a 57-44 halftime lead.
Rest? Please: The Chicago Bulls do not rest.
The Magic come within three points in the third quarter, but the Bulls put their foot back onto the pedal and pull away for a 108-95 win.
Thibodeau, toeing his typical, staunchly narrative-defying line, insists after the game that no special playoff attention went into the effort and that no changes are being made in accordance with whom they may face. “I don’t know how you guys judge it. We’re trying to win games,” he says, bristling—offended, even—at the very thought, so blusterous and distant from his team’s rituals. “Move on to the next one, know the opponent, keep moving forward. That’s all we can do.”
“We’re not changing,” he adds.
Joakim Noah echoes this sentiment. “That’s none of my business,” he says, when asked about the Miami Heat dropping to the No. 2 seed and the Toronto Raptors firming up their position at the No. 3 seed, ahead of the Bulls—both of which happened as the Bulls played. “Our focus is on the next game, staying in the moment. Whatever happens happens. Our mentality is to get ready for the next game.”
And the thing is this: The Bulls are believable in their stubborn rhetoric. They’re buttressing their weak spots in anticipation of the playoffs—but only as they would at any other point of the season. Whether it’s April or December, they gird themselves because they do so indefinitely.
It’s their process like it is no one else's to stand pat and reinforce their principles. The Bulls have no time for newfangled rest methods, strategic losing or believing in the stories surrounding them. They only maim what’s in front of them.
There is no difference between playoff basketball and Chicago Bulls basketball.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.