The Chicago Bulls have relied on their toughness and grit for years. Ever since Derrick Rose went down, the first time, this group of Windy City cagers has exceeded expectations. When Rose went down yet again, the team’s mettle was really tested. They persevered. Shortly after losing their MVP for the second time, the front office decided to move Luol Deng to Cleveland to create cap space. The pundits talked about a lottery pick. Instead these defensive minded Bulls outplayed everyone in the Eastern Conference and earned themselves home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, their offense often disappears. After building a double-digit second half lead in Game 1 against Washington, the scoring disappeared. More inexplicably, the trademark defense underachieved. The Bulls lost and gave away the home court advantage they fought so hard for. Their backs are against the wall yet again.
A lesser team would certainly crack under such pressure. This club however is different. Overcoming the Rose injuries and Deng trade were much taller tasks than recovering from one loss to an inexperienced Wizards squad. The Bulls are not only physically tough but more importantly they are strong mentally. Their coach Tim Thibodeau and their best player Joakim Noah instill that mindset in each and every one of them.
The opener against Washington has to be chalked up as an aberration. While the Bulls lack of offense was no surprise from a group that finished worst in the NBA in points per game and shooting percentage, it was the defensive meltdown that has led to plenty of ajada in Chitown.
Thibodeau preaches defense. He lives and breathes defense. Every possession is treated like a “must stop.” Chicago appeared to be up to their old tricks when they built a 13-point cushion in Game 1, but as Noah put it they “exhaled.” Now Bulls fans are holding their breath, suddenly uneasy about a series that looked to be very winnable going in.
The Bulls are who they are. They play defense like Dobermans, and they win ugly. It’s too late to change that. Thibodeau must stick to the plan that got him here and keep suffocating the opponent at every turn. Look for guys like Jimmy Butler to never see the bench again. When Thibodeau likes you, he really likes you. Coming out of the game barring unforeseen foul trouble will probably not be an option for Butler. The team needs to feed off of workhorses like Butler and Energizer bunnies like Taj Gibson. Their season depends on it.
Losing their regular season finale to Charlotte dropped the Bulls into the four hole, setting up match-ups with Washington and potentially Indiana instead of having to worry about Brooklyn in the first round and Miami in the second. It’s up to the Bulls to take advantage of that perceived good fortune. If they build a double digit lead against the Wizards again, will Chicago exhale or will they clamp down and put John Wall and company away? Will they feel the heat or survive and keep their hopes of dethroning the Heat alive? If the past is any indication, don’t bet against the Bulls.