In a down Eastern Conference, Chicago has a chance
The Eastern Conference is bad. Really bad.
At this point of the season, with only two teams carrying win-loss records above .500, the storyline doesn't need to be repeated. Unless something changes, fans of Eastern Conference teams are going to be watching a lot of bad basketball this season.
Most teams in the East can approach their conference's ineptitude with some more optimism. The playoff race is wide open. No team -- not even the two New York teams (who have nine combine wins this season) toiling near the bottom of the conference standings -- should count themselves out.
With point guard Derrick Rose expected to miss the rest of the season after undergoing his second major knee surgery in 19 months, the Bulls' postseason potential is significantly diminished. But in a conference this bad, they're virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs.
And that's a conservative baseline -- the Bulls might be the third or fourth best team in this conference. Games like Thursday's win against Miami illustrate why. The Bulls remain one of the best defensive teams in the league.
"I think overall our defense is pretty good," Thibodeau said afterward.
Chicago held LeBron James and Miami's explosive offense to just 87 points -- and grabbed 49 rebounds to Miami's 27 -- on 41.6 percent shooting. Despite scoring 21 points, James struggled to find clean looks most of the night. Constantly swarmed by defenders, James was never able to find his rhythm. After the game, it was clear the Bulls' stifling defensive pressure had gotten to him.
"No matter who is on the floor, you know they will be playing defense," James said. "They do a great job of keeping the ball to one side of the field, and containing us."
James was also frustrated Thursday night by his team's recurring rebounding struggles. "They just cleaned the glass all night," he said. "You can't lose the glass like that and win.
"We have never been a great rebounding team."
With Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson roaming about the paint, contesting shots and providing solid help when neeed, Chicago was able to frustrate James -- at least to a point where he wasn't able to single-handedly dominate the game, which has become the norm more often than not this season.
The formula the Bulls used to secure the five-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season -- playing tough, disciplined defense, while scrapping every ounce of offensive output they could from a Rose-less rotation -- can work in 2013-14.
Three of Chicago's high-usage players (Jimmy Butler, Deng and Gibson) have posted top-25 defensive ratings among players who average at least 20 minutes per game. Another, Joakim Noah, is acclaimed for his defensive prowess.
Most important, coach Tom Thibodeau has proven himself as one of the league's best defensive coaches, having guided the Bulls to top-10 defensive efficiency rates every year since becoming Chicago's head coach before the 2010-11 season.
"We played the three point line really well tonight," said Gibson, moments after the Bulls held Miami to 27 percent shooting from beyond the arc. "That was one of the biggest things we needed to sharpen up. Everyone just stepped up."
Even without Rose, winning with defense can work.
The Walking wounded
Both teams entered Thursday night's game at less than full strength. One of the Bulls' injuries is well-advertised (Rose), but they were also playing without guard Mike James, who is sitting out with a sprained MCL, or forward Jimmy Butler, who is still dealing with Turf toe on his right foot.
The Heat, meanwhile, were without Dwayne Wade (illness) and forward Chris Andersen (personal reasons).
Which team adapted better to playing at less than full strength?
During Thursday night's game, the answer was obvious: Chicago.
"I think we have been playing hard, but we have been disappointed that we cannot close games out," Thibodeau said, after explaining, with brevity, what he was most pleased about Thursday night. "The win."
The Bulls blitzed Miami from the start, dealing the Heat just its second set of back-to-back losses since January.
Over the long run, the answer could -- and almost certainly will -- be different.
Chicago is a completely different team without Rose. They will likely remain one of the four or five best teams in the Eastern Conference, but their playoff ceiling is immeasurably lower without Rose than it is with him.
Come playoff time, barring a major injury, Miami -- despite Thursday night's subpar performance -- will almost certainly have the advantage. For those who place too much emphasis on the results of games in December, Thursday night might have obscured that basic point. But in the bigger picture, Miami, with its full complement of players on the floor, is not only better than Chicago, but arguably the best team in the league.
"They are a great team," Thibodeau said of Miami. "They are down some guys too."
An ugly performance -- which can be explained, at least in part, by injuries to two important rotation players -- doesn't change that.
Can Tony Snell be counted upon?
Injuries to guards Rose and James have left Chicago with a thin backcourt. Players expected to spend the majority of their time coming off the bench this season have been forced into starting roles.
Veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich is no stranger to being a starter -- he did it 60 times last season while Rose sat out with a torn ACL. Rookie small forward Tony Snell, who the Bulls selected with the 20th pick in this summer's draft, is just barely getting used to life in the NBA.
Now he's starting on a likely playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
"Each day, you can see him growing," Thibodeau said of Snell. "He studies hard, he prepares himself well, he'll keep improving. "The thing I'm most pleased with is the way he works, and his attitude and his approach."
His rise from late first-round pick to pivotal rotation player probably happened far earlier, and far quicker, than he ever imagined. Still, Snell has adopted well to his starting spot. In Thursday night's win, he submitted another solid performance, scoring eight points on 3-for-7 shooting while grabbing three rebounds and dishing out two assists.
Over the last four games, Snell is averaging 11.3 points, shooting 52 percent from inside the arc and 55 percent from outside and making solid contributions on the defensive end.
"He's shown that he's ready for this opportunity," Thibodeau said.
It's unlikely he'll develop into one of Chicago's top scorers this season, but the Bulls -- even without Rose -- don't need him to be. If Snell can continue to develop, contribute timely shots when called upon and embrace Thibodeau's defensive principles, he'll have a more productive first year than most imagined when he heard his name called with the 20th overall pick in June.
Without Rose, the Bulls guard rotation is composed of the following: Mike Dunleavy, Hinrich, Marquis Teague, and the injured Butler and James. Far from a deep group, the Bulls' backcourt needs any and all contributions it can get from its rookie small forward.
"He's not going to make the same mistake twice," Thibodeau said. "And winning's important to him."
Snell's consistent play could be critical as the Bulls try to maintain their foothold in the Eastern Conference playoff race.