Chicago Bulls coming together as Derrick Rose's return from injury looms

USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls are rolling despite an offense that ranks No. 21 in efficiency. How is Chicago again within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the East?

Embarrassing the Los Angeles Lakers in front of a national audience is becoming something of a rite of passage for any NBA team worth its salt this season, and the Chicago Bulls took full advantage of their turn on Monday night. Yes, we can confirm reports that the Lakers' demise is very much a real thing. Luol Deng sat with a sore hamstring, Joakim Noah finished 2-for-8 from the field and Carlos Boozer scored only 14 points on 16 shots, but the Bulls still had enough to put a 95-83 whipping on Los Angeles.

"There's really nothing left to say," wrote C.A. Clark in the first sentence of his recap at SB Nation's Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll. "The Los Angeles Lakers are not a good basketball team."

It's a fact that's becoming overwhelmingly obvious as teams approach the halfway point in the season, but it also might obfuscate another: with the return of Derrick Rose looming, the Bulls are playing some great basketball.

Rose is a beloved figure in Chicago and arguably the city's biggest celebrity. There are times when he can seem bigger than the Bulls. When coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters on Monday that Rose was "very close" to returning to full contact practice -- "It could [happen this week]" -- media outlets raced to see who could get the news up the quickest. But while Rose will rightfully be treated like a franchise savior upon his return, his teammates are proving they can win plenty of games without him.

Even for true believers in the genius of Tom Thibodeau, it's still an amazing thing to witness.

With the victory over the Lakers, the Bulls have won four of their five games and eight of their last 11. They've waged a war on style points all season and have proven to be an undeniable bore to watch, but the most recent stretch of games have been uncharacteristically entertaining.

A week ago, Chicago's stellar defense broke numerous records in holding the Atlanta Hawks to 58 points at the United Center. That was followed by an overtime win in Toronto thanks to a game-winning jumper from Luol Deng, which was followed by an overtime win over the Celtics on Friday sealed by a ridiculous Marco Belinelli fadeaway as time was winding down. The Bulls took a very competent Grizzlies team to overtime as Deng rested on Sunday, and that was with Noah sitting the final 23 minutes after apparently exchanging some less than friendly words with Thibodeau.

In a vacuum, defeating a punchless Lakers team at home qualifies as the "most normal" thing the Bulls have done in some time. So how are the Bulls doing all of this? How are they 24-16 without Rose, just three games back of the No. 1 seed in the East? There are a few reasons for Chicago's success.

Carlos Boozer is playing inspired basketball

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Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago never wanted Carlos Boozer; that's the first thing you need to understand. When the Bulls headed into free agency in the famed summer of 2010, they had enough salary cap space to team Rose with two max-level free agents. The Bulls thought they could get LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. It turned out they couldn't even get Amare Stoudemire or Joe Johnson.

Boozer was the consolation prize, and the fanbase has mostly spent the last two and a half years criticizing him. His offensive game is purported to be "soft." His defense is noticeably abominable, little more than standing and yelling without actually moving. But ever since the calendar turned to 2013, Boozer has been rather excellent.

In 11 games in the new year, Boozer is averaging 22 points and 11.5 rebounds on 52 percent shooting. As Jason Patt noted at Blog a Bull, he's getting more looks close to the rim and he's converting them. Boozer's defense might also be slowly starting to take form, as the power forward has gotten his net rating to -0.3, much better than it was earlier in the season.

Three-point defense

The Chicago Bulls do not like three-pointers. They do not like shooting them and they certainly don't like you shooting them, either. The Bulls rank dead last offensively in three-pointers attempted and are 29th in three-pointers made. It's part of the reason their offense ranks No. 21 in the league. But as has always been the case under Thibodeau, the Bulls again boast a top-three defense that is predicated on certain fundamental truths. A Thibodeau team will bully opposing offenses on the pick-and-roll, protect the paint with the freakish athleticism of Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah and sure as hell won't give you an open look at a three-pointer.

From 20-24 feet, opponents are shooting just 34 percent against Chicago, giving the Bulls' defense the best mark in the league. As spacing and shooting from the corners takes on added importance each season, the Bulls have proven to be wildly effective at eliminating the corner three. The Bulls have allowed opponents to take 144 corner threes this season and are holding shooters to a 33.3 percent mark. That's the third best percentage in the league from that spot on the court, but the sheer number of attempts is what's most impressive. The Bulls have allowed 30 less corner threes than the next closest team in the league (Indiana).

Passing

The Bulls are slow (24th in pace), can't shoot from the outside and have zero discernible shot creator-types on the roster, save for those rare nights when Nate Robinson decides to go off. So how does this offense even get to No. 21 league-wide? The Bulls are No. 11 in the league in free throw attempts, led by Luol Deng's 4.2 attempts per game. They're also seventh in offensive rebound percentage, second chance points that are so crucial for a team that has such a difficult time getting a clean look in the half-court set. But where the Bulls really make their mark is passing, particularly on the interior.

Noah and Boozer are both tremendous passers, and the statistics prove it as true. The Bulls are No. 1 in the league in percentage of buckets off of two-point field goals (83.9 percent) because they're also No. 1 in assist percentage on two-pointers.

Two season ago with Rose at his MVP peak, Chicago ranked No. 9 and No. 13 in the two statistics respectively, as Rose was often left to create for himself. Without their ball dominant guard, the Bulls are left to make the extra pass, which often times results in an easy flush for Noah, Boozer or Gibson.

Chicago's ultimate success will lie in how explosive Rose can be when he comes back and how Thibodeau can assimilate him into the lineup without losing the things they have made the Bulls so formidable this season. There are plenty of encouraging signs, though. Belinelli and Jimmy Butler are leading the reconstructed bench, Boozer is playing out of his mind and the team as a whole has stayed relatively healthy. Is it enough to give Miami trouble in the playoffs? Only Rose holds the answer.

Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at richardpodonnell@gmail.com.


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