Chicago Bulls' Great Expectations: After Getting Top Spot, Can They Win It All?

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Chicago Bulls' Great Expectations: After Getting Top Spot, Can They Win It All?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With a convincing 93-82 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, the Chicago Bulls clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

"We are the No. 1 seed and we have home court advantage and we are not satisfied," Joakim Noah told ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "We're trying to catch up to San Antonio and we're focused on our next opponent and that's it."

Noah's "one-game-at-a-time" attitude reflects the disciplined approach this Bulls team has taken all season, instilled by first-year coach Tom Thibodeau.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that MVP candidate Derrick Rose has embraced his new coach's methods, becoming almost as much a basketball junkie as Thibodeau (if that were ever possible), mentioning that all he does besides basketball is eat, sleep, and play video games.

"Thibs, man, coach of the year," Rose told Friedell after the win over the Cavaliers. "Where he's just been on us. Holding everyone accountable every time we step on the court. With him, we've just been ballin'."

Taking one game at a time, removing the lofty postseason expectations that often come with 60 wins, has kept this Bulls team focused.

But in an extraordinary season coming on the heels of a .500 ballclub's first-round playoff exit in 2010, it seems everyone outside of this rejuvenated locker room cannot help but look ahead, graduating from asking "can they make the playoffs?" to "can they win it all?"

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For those who believe in fate, the omens are almost overwhelming. It has been 20 years since the Bulls' first championship, when Magic Johnson passed the proverbial torch to Michael Jordan in five games.

Now in 2011, with the Los Angeles Lakers still favored to come out of the Western Conference and the Bulls sitting at No. 1 in the East with 60 wins for the first time since Jordan brought Larry O'Brien home in 1998, could history be repeating itself?

Will Kobe Bryant pass his torch to Derrick Rose, who is well on his way to becoming the youngest MVP ever? Will Phil Jackson finish his career by losing to the same franchise he established his decorated coaching career with?

It would seem the stage is set for everything to come full circle.

However, basketball pundits, as they have done all season, continue to doubt that the Bulls are for real. They point to the gaping hole in their 2-guard position, where starter Keith Bogans is only averaging 4.4 PPG.

They argue that the Bulls don't have enough perimeter shooting to sustain enough scoring to win a seven game series.

Nearly all bring up inexperience, given that only a couple of the Bulls' main pieces have made it past the first round (Deng made it to the second round and Boozer to the Western Conference Finals with the Utah Jazz).

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

These arguments are strengthened by the obstacles that stand between the Bulls and the Eastern Conference title.

If the Magic steamroll the Atlanta Hawks like they did in the 2010 playoffs (though they were 1-3 against Atlanta this season) the Bulls would meet them in the second round, putting their "anemic offense" against the incumbent Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard.

Howard also provides a match-up nightmare for the Bulls unless Omer Asik can survive challenging him for extended minutes. Pair that with the Magic's penchant for shooting threes, and it would seem Orlando has the advantage.

If the Bulls do move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, they would face either the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat (provided they aren't upset).

Both have similar strengths that the Bulls lack: they both have multiple offensive weapons and have players who have gone deep in the playoffs. They also play exceptional defense, ranking second and third behind Chicago in opponent's FG%.

Not much can be determined by their regular season meetings, either, for the Bulls split their series with the Celtics 2-2 and only swept the Heat by a total of eight points in three games that could have gone either way.

Chicago, it would seem, has a lot of proving to do this postseason.

And they do, but what people seem to overlook constantly are all of the intangibles that have taken this team past preseason expectations and turned it into a quiet juggernaut.

Though the playoffs are "an entirely different animal," as many like to call it, Chicago's "one-at-a-time" approach won't change. They'll be quick to improve, able to adapt to the changes their opponents will make over the course of each series.

It will remove any doubt stemming from inexperience, because all these players care about is the next game ahead of them, rather than the bigger picture.

They'll have consistent play from their "bench mob" too, which ranks among the best in the league, a strength for which Boston and Miami cannot account. 

What makes this team truly different, though, is how closely it has bonded under the desire to win.

Led by Rose, who has seemingly hurt his MVP case for Stat Mongers by caring more about winning than his individual performance, this entire Bulls team has taken on an "all-for-one" attitude, caring about the team's success more than their own.

They're humble, quick to share credit, and always support one another from the bench. This type of team chemistry is rare in today's NBA, and it gives some fans all the evidence they need to believe (perhaps somewhat prematurely) that this team is title-ready.

They've made up for their obvious weaknesses through their preparation and teamwork, so who's to argue that they can't have success in the playoffs as well?

If the Chicago Bulls can somehow manage to face the Lakers in the 2011 NBA finals, it surely would be an improbable ending to a season that no one expected...except for maybe the Chicago Bulls.

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