The Chicago Bulls are making their mark on the Eastern Conference, and the National Basketball Association.
With their 87-86 win Sunday over the Miami Heat, Chicago has taken over the second seed in the beastly east, and is only three games behind the Boston Celtics for the top seed. The Bulls were expected to be markedly improved, but to say they were going to be one of the best teams in the Association was not expected.
With the emergence of Chicago as a contender for the NBA Championship, is it conceivable to say that they can win it? What is a realistic expectation for this club?
The Chicago Bulls are 26-11 versus the Eastern Conference this season, including a 6-6 record against top east teams Boston, Miami, Orlando, New York, and Atlanta. Those teams are considered to have a realistic chance of advancing past the first round of the playoffs, with all due respect to current seventh and eighth seeded Philadelphia and Indiana.
The .500 clip against the best may seem a bit underwhelming considering the Bulls' record, but remember the team was without Joakim Noah and/or Carlos Boozer for five of those six losses. The team is not complete without both.
That same 6-6 record looks that much better considering the absence of those two big men, and it could be argued that their record would be improved with both in the lineup more consistently.
With that in mind, the future is more important, and it has Noah and Boozer in the equation.
Chicago has five more games against the best in their conference, two at home. The rest of the schedule looks less daunting than those five games, with multiple match-ups against Detroit and New Jersey, and games against Indiana, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Chicago has yet to lose a divisional game.
It appears Chicago can lock up the two seed in the east, which would more than likely pit them against Philly. Chicago handled the 76ers 121-76 December 21st. It is safe to say the Bulls will be in the second round if they face the 76ers. At that point, Chicago could face New York, Miami, or Indiana if they took out Boston.
Chicago, as we now know, swept the season series against Miami, albeit with a combined win margin of eight points. Chicago has yet to beat New York. Any way you slice it, the second round match-up is going to be a tough task.
Ignoring all of the "what ifs" of predicting the playoffs in March, let's assume Chicago advances to the conference finals to face Boston. Chicago is 1-2 against the Celtics. Both teams have won their games on their home courts.
This is arguably the match-up fans would like to see. Derrick Rose and Chicago would get their chance to exact revenge after a heart-breaking first round exit back in the 2009 playoffs, and it would give Boston another sniff at winning a ring before the "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce ride off into the sunset.
Fun series, right? On the plus side, the Bulls have beaten each of those teams this season.
With all of that in mind, the Bulls are still getting their first looks at a complete roster. The teams' chemistry on and off the court has been above average for most of the season. Once an inside game is cemented, it is hard to say the Bulls are not likely to be in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The league is abuzz with talk of Rose, Boozer, Noah, and a resurgent Luol Deng, but the second unit in the Windy City may be the reason they win games.
C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, and 'Big Sexy' Kurt Thomas have been nothing short of invaluable all season.
Watson left a team in which he saw 30 minutes a game to be a back up, Brewer is a defensive stud, Korver and his 'hot sauce' can win games single-handedly and the trio down low have filled in admirably while Noah and Boozer missed time.
Games may be won more often by Derrick Rose, but some games this season would not have been able to be won without these guys getting them within striking distance.
Few teams have Chicago's depth, and depth is needed to play along with your stars and superstars.
Chicago may not be an overwhelming favorite in many people's eyes, and doubters have their reasons. Streaky offense, more injuries and a lack of a winning pedigree could halt this team from progressing.
One question: What team does not have at least one question mark?
Realistically, Chicago is on the verge of having a special team. With the east getting stronger by the day (or trade), now is the time to pounce and take a stranglehold on the 2010-11 Eastern Conference.
Do not be surprised if Chicago is playing in the Finals...and winning.
All stats courtesy of the NBA