The Chicago Bulls were not supposed to be this good. They weren't supposed to be priming themselves for what could be a playoff run as a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference after Derrick Rose fell victim to another long-term injury. They lost their best player, then traded away a team stalwart in Luol Deng. In the face of yet another year of turmoil, nobody would've blamed them had they folded up their tents and made the decision to reorganize their roster and salary-cap situation to prepare for a future with what they hope to be a healthy Rose.
Nope. Not with crazy ol' Tom Thibodeau at the helm. Not with a stifling defense and a frontcourt rotation as good as any in the NBA. Chicago is beating the crap out of teams, and in a tissue-soft Eastern Conference, one shouldn't bet on that slowing down all that much.
Their defense is suffocating the opposition into just 95.5 points per 100 possessions, and they're beating teams by more than seven points per game on average during that 10-game stretch. Taj Gibson has emerged as the team's leading scorer since Noah's outburst and Carlos Boozer is averaging nearly 20 points and grabbing more than 12 rebounds per 36 minutes.
And, of course, Noah has been a monster. Chicago's emotional and physical leader is filling up the box score on a nightly basis, averaging 14.4 points and 12.5 rebounds per game over the last 10 since the ejection in Sacramento. And he's showing why he might be the best passing big man in the league on top of it all. Noah is dishing out 6.5 assists per game during this stretch, which leads the team by more than two dimes per night. The next closest is D.J. Augustin's 4.2 average.
Bulls Must Reads
Bulls Must Reads
And speaking of Augustin, the former punchless Pacer has gone from a roster casualty in Toronto to key contributor in Chicago, exceeding most anyone's low expectations. Augustin is averaging 13.4 points and 5.5 assists in 30.6 minutes per game as a Bull, and he's hitting better than 41 percent of his threes on top of it. Much like Nate Robinson did last year, Augustin has done an admirable job helping to fill a major void with Rose expected to miss the rest of the season. Between he and Kirk Hinrich, the point guard position is stabilized for the time being.
Who knows how this season's going to wind up for the Bulls, but their grind-it-out style is once again working in the absence of their superstar. Why should we expect anything less from a Thibs-coached team? Chicago is 8-2 over its last 10 games and is pushing for home-court advantage in the first round, with a two-game lead on the Washington Wizards in the loss column. The Eastern Conference isn't likely to offer a ton of resistance down the stretch, especially in the face of a team as physical as the Bulls.
The type of offensive firepower needed to advance deep in the playoffs seems to be lacking, but Chicago won't go away without making things interesting once more. The future is unsettled for several players on the roster, but they'll tackle that issue when they get to it. For now, they're going to play all 53 minutes of an overtime game for Thibodeau if they have to, and they'll punch, push and shove their way as deep into the playoffs as they can.
It's just what the Bulls do: an identity that hasn't changed one bit.