Sunday January 18th, 2015

CHICAGO -- Pau Gasol's been here long enough to try the deep-dish. Carlos Boozer is launching midrange jumpers out west. So it is a good time to check in with our early East favorites, the Chicago Bulls.​ After beating Houston on January 5, Chicago had won 13 of its past 15 games, including Portland and Toronto at home, and Washington and Memphis on the road. Since then Bulls have dropped five of seven, including home losses to Utah and Orlando and two tough ones to a menacing Wizards team. They still sit fourth in the East at 27-15.

Remember that this a franchise scarred by injuries and haunted by early playoff exits for the past few years, with its MVP, Derrick Rose, on the sidelines. Now with their most talented roster of Tom Thibodeau’s tenure and lofty expectations to match, from the outset the Bulls’ regular season has naturally felt more about the end result than the process itself. But some nights, that process hits you in the face, and Saturday was one of them.

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The Bulls’ latest loss, a 107-99 defeat, came at the hands of the first-place Hawks, a ball-moving buzzsaw featuring a healthy Al Horford and fully-weaponized Kyle Korver. The notion of Mike Budenholzer building the Eastern Conference’s Spurs can no longer be laughed at. And for Chicago, a win over Atlanta, which drubbed Toronto and Washington by more than 20 points this week, would have been a clear statement. In midst of a backslide, it was an opportunity to tell everyone things are fine, in a manner which Friday’s blowout win over Boston simply couldn’t. 

That didn’t happen. Chicago fell into an early hole and never escaped, despite a big third quarter from Rose (15 points, 4 of 5 from three) and a too-little too-late rally in the fourth. They sorely missed Joakim Noah, out with an ankle injury, on the defensive end against Horford and Paul Millsap. They’re still without Mike Dunleavy, whose size and floor-spacing ability would have meant no three-guard lineups featuring Rose alongside the scrappy but non-threatening Kirk Hinrich and E’Twaun Moore.

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“This is our reality,” said Thibodeau. “This is what we gotta deal with. We gotta figure it out. Whoever’s being called upon, get in there and get the job done.”

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Still, if you went back and told Bulls fans prior to the season that at the halfway mark Derrick Rose’s only crutch to lean on would be the occasional press-conference cliché, they’d have taken that deal in a heartbeat. Never mind the fact the Bulls would be sitting first in the conference, or that Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler would have posted all-star-worthy numbers. At full strength the Bulls still boast the deepest, most playoff-tested group in the conference. Trend upward with a loaded deck come playoff time and see if anyone can match you in seven games, or so the logic went.

Well, things have grown more complicated. An Eastern Conference ruled by the Hawks, with Washington and Toronto as threats and LeBron James back on the floor in Cleveland makes it increasingly difficult for the Bulls to look past anybody. A top-three finish can no longer be taken for granted, and bears much more meaning than it did when Chicago’s discourse centered around knee ligaments. The occasional loss at home to a struggling team can’t be dismissed as growing pains anymore.

From here, the Bulls face the task of avoiding a 4-5 playoff matchup that could take the full seven games to grind out. It also feels inevitable that they’ll draw Atlanta or Washington in the second round, and both have beaten them twice with confidence. As Chicago continues to struggle, those attitudes won’t change, and with Cleveland, San Antonio, Dallas, Miami and Golden State next on the docket, it won’t get easier. The locker room appears in agreement that a turnaround starts on the defensive end.

“We need to pick up our communication level and our alertness, understand that it’s going to take multiple efforts in order to stop certain teams,” Gasol said. “We definitely need to do a better job of setting the tone defensively, and not putting ourselves in holes.”

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It’s a far cry from the grind-it-out identity past Bulls teams have embraced under Thibodeau, perhaps the game’s brightest defensive mind. Their highest points per game allowed since the coach took over in 2010 is 92.9. They're at 99.5 on the season and have allowed 103.2 points per game in January. Maybe there's a fix, maybe it’s not a personnel issue. Maybe this truly just isn't a defensive-oriented team anymore, as much as Thibs will never admit it. But right now, nobody seems to have an answer.

“There were lapses,” said Rose. “It seemed like we were down and chasing them the entire game. I don’t know when we are going to learn, but we have to learn quickly.”

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The superstar himself has begun to round into form, at least on the offensive end. In the past four games, Rose’s play has been an enormous positive. After an extended stretch of poor shooting performances, he’s averaged 25.5 points and eight assists, shot a little over 50 percent from the field and exactly that from behind the arc. As much as some have maligned his shot selection and quick trigger, this Bulls team needs him attacking on this level to make it out of the East. 

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Rose is the extra gear, the shot of nitrous that’s been sitting on the bench in a suit for two years. And the fact he appears healthy and to have found his stride halfway into the season, within the context of Chicago’s struggles without him, keeps them in the big picture. 

Beat them up, throw their defense in flux, snatch away their early season crown. The elements for a deep postseason run still appear to be there. Their difficulties have made it more obvious, but the reality has always been that they have to get there first. Each passing game carries a little more weight, but the Bulls still have an eye on the end game.

“I’d rather have these tough stretches earlier in the year than later on,” Gasol said. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. When you go through these periods, there are good opportunities to grow, tighten things up. It’s always positive to face adversity, and how you handle it is what defines you. Let’s see how we handle it.”

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