With seven of their next eight games at home, and riding a four-game winning streak, optimism appears to be on the rise for the Chicago Bulls after the All-Star Break. Head coach Tom Thibodeau's squad has looked in fine form, as they hold the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Chicago fans have grown accustomed to a certain brand of basketball under head coach Tom Thibodeau, laden with staunch defense and a rather methodical offense. This year, and especially over the last month, the Bulls are winning more with a multifaceted offense thanks to a number of contributors, at perhaps the cost of some defensive production.
The Bulls are ninth in the NBA with 102.2 points per game, and allowing 99.1, good for No. 12 in the league but a far cry from last year’s top defensive club. Since Thibodeau took over in 2010, the Bulls have ranked no lower than No. 3 in the NBA in points allowed, but with some improved scoring, Thibodeau appears to be loosening the reins a bit.
Chicago boasted two high-scoring All-Stars on Sunday, with Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol averaging 20.4 and 18.4 points per game, respectively. Gasol has looked sharp in recent weeks, averaging 21 points and 13.6 rebounds in February, while shooting. 57.7 percent. Butler, who has been hampered by shoulder problems, may be cooling off a bit from his hot start to the season. Yet, the 25-year-old continues to perform at a high level with three scoring outbursts of 27 points or more in his last seven appearances.
But the most encouraging player on the roster might be improvement of Derrick Rose.
The 26-year-old followed up his strong January of 20.3 points and 4.9 assists in 34 minutes of work per game, with an excellent five-game stretch to start February. Improving his shooting to 46.7 percent, Rose has dropped 21 points and 6.2 assists this month.
In perhaps the Bulls' biggest win of the season so far, Rose lit up the No. 4 seed Cleveland Cavaliers for 30 points and seven assists over 41 minutes. The Bulls would prevail 113-98, keeping Cleveland 1.5 games back at No. 5.
"I think Derrick looked great last night," LeBron James said of Rose on Friday. "I haven't seen him as much this year, obviously. But the game last night, it just showed what he's capable of doing. He went back door on one play last night, dunked the ball."
It looked like a different Rose against the Cavs. Perhaps sparked by his omission from the All-Star Game, the former MVP seemed out to prove he is still a major force after being sidelined by injuries. He penetrated and scored impressive shots against Cleveland, possibly proving that he has saved his best for the second half of the season and the playoffs while basketball viewers were turning their attention to the NBA's first-half stars.
"When D-Rose is feeling good, he's attacking, and that's what he did to us last night -- transition, getting to the rim, up-and-unders, reverses," James said. "He's shooting that two-foot pull-up one-hander. That's the MVP and the All-Star that we all have grown accustomed to loving, so hopefully, he can get back to that. I think he can. I'm a big D-Rose fan, anyways. I love D-Rose. I love his game, and it was great to see him perform like he did last night, even in competition."
A former Bulls star was quick to point out that Rose is flourishing with the second-half of the season set to get underway.
“Derrick Rose is back,” Scottie Pippen said on Friday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s like any other player in this game. He’s going to have his ups and downs.
“But he’s back. I think people should stop judging him on whether he has a great game or a bad game. He’s human. He’s over his injuries pretty much. He just has to continue to play through this and get into the postseason, where he really wants to perform.”
And Rose has persevered even when his shot isn't falling. Chicago faced a 97-91 deficit with 32 seconds left against the Orlando Magic last week, with Rose going 4-for-14 from the field. But he found a way to be more effective, notching 11 assists and nailing a three-pointer with 20 seconds left to pull the game within one. Again the Bulls would prevail, showing off their veteran savvy, while taking advantage of several poor late-game mistakes by a young Magic squad.
More help may be on the way. Injured center Joakim Noah, who has missed 11 games this season, has nursed an ankle injury and started the year recovering from minor offseason knee surgery. He’s averaging 7.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, both Noah’s lowest totals since 2009. But the 29-year-old told ESPN last week that he’s feeling better, which could be dangerous for the rest of the conference.
"I still feel like I got another gear to get to," Noah said. "It's just been up and down, man, so I just have to stay patient, but I'm excited though. I'm feeling better and better, and I just got to keep working."
Meanwhile, the reserves have done their part. Point guard Aaron Brooks leads the bench with 10.8 points and 2.7 assists per game, commanding a solid relief corps of forwards Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy, as well as Montenegrin rookie Nikola Mirotic.
Should Noah and Butler return to full strength, and Rose and Gasol keep up their steady stream of production, the Bulls can quickly erase the Atlanta Hawks lead in the East.
The Hawks raced out to a 43-11 mark in the first half of the season, and hold a nine-game lead over the Bulls, but they’ll next take the court Friday against the No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors and have dates with the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and the Cavs in the coming weeks.
By mid-March, Atlanta could slip from the top. The Hawks will have a harrowing six-game Western Conference swing that includes matchups with the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Raptors hold a slim 2.5-game lead over Chicago, and Toronto may be in danger of a skid. After Friday’s matchup at Atlanta, they’ll head to Houston, New Orleans and Dallas before hosting the West’s top club, Golden State, on Feb. 27.
The Washington Wizards and the Cavs are lurking close by, with only 1.5 games separating the No. 3 and 5 seeds. The Cavs appears to finally have their act together, and have a reasonable road slate for the rest of month: at Washington, the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons over the next week. But the Cavs will also host the Warriors, and then travel to face the Indiana Pacers to end the month.
The Wizards have a more favorable February schedule, facing the Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and two dates with the Pistons, with only Friday’s matchup with Cleveland and a home stand versus Golden State next week as difficult opponents.
Over the next few months there figures to be plenty of jostling for the East's top five seeds, but the revamped Bulls figure to be near the top. Odds makers have the Bulls as 4/1 favorites to reach the NBA Finals, trailing only the Cavs (11/10) and Hawks (9/4).
Thibodeau should probably feel confident with 28 games remaining in the regular season. The Bulls appear to have overcome a painful stretch of five wins in 15 games that began with a brutal home loss to the lowly Utah Jazz on Jan. 7. The next step is building off recent successes, and making a serious push at a high seed in the postseason.