Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bulls Show Heart in Advancing Over Brooklyn

Chicago Bulls fans have been saying it for three years now. This team is special. We've seen the way that this team competes; the heart, hustle, and muscle that serve as the core of the team's identity no matter who is playing. We've seen this team endure adversity to the tune of injuries and/or illness to nearly every key player on the team. Derrick Rose (the former MVP, if you can remember) has missed all of this season and chunks of last year. Joakim Noah has labored through a viscious plantar fasciitis injury for the past few years and has spent time sitting out as well. Players like Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, and Rip Hamilton have all missed serious stretches of time. And yet, here we are, advancing to the second round of the playoffs in what many thought was a "lost" season coming after two straight years atop the NBA standings.

Now, of course, after a heroic 7 game series against a fully healthy Brooklyn Nets team, the rest of the NBA press is starting to pick up on the Bulls story. Scores of national basketball reporters are flocking to the Bulls as they see a team decimated by injuries with every reason to give up fight through everything just to advance. It's great to see, a hardworking team that is amazingly well-coached finally get some national credit in lieu the braggadocious, self-aggrandizing behavior of That Team From South Beach.

Can't help but love this team
And yet this is something we've known of this team all along. It's what makes them so fun to root for and what makes the fan base as a whole identify with this team on a different level than we're used to seeing in modern sports. It's almost akin to rooting for a team that's on a more personal fandom like a team with your friends on it, or watching your kids' teams as a parent. Joakim Noah hobbling up and down the court. Derrick Rose sitting in a suit on the bench. Luol Deng not even with the team as he spent time in the hospital. Taj Gibson a nonfactor with lingering knee problems and some bad flu. Nate Robinson puking on the bench. Kirk Hinrich unable to play because of a calf injury. With all they've been through, and the way they've fought through it all season and especially in this series, it somehow means more. We feel for these guys.

So watching last night, as Noah blocked shot after Brook Lopez shot, as he was tipping in rebounds left and right, and dunking home the ball followed by his patented scream, you couldn't help as a Chicago fan but swell with pride. With this team, the way they've banded together, us fans lived possession to possession with these guys. What a special moment; seeing them advance has been a great moment in Chicago sports history.

I keep coming back to Noah. I'm not trying to be too hyperbolic here, but seriously, what a warrior. If you flash back to the night before the series started, we weren't even sure if he was going to play. But there he was last night, willing his team to both a giant first half lead as well as withstanding a furious Nets rally throughout the second half. Of course, there's the incredible stat line, the 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks. But for Noah, it's never about the stat line even though he consistently fills it. It's about his attitude, his desire, his hustle, his heart, and his will to win. He's the kind of player you win championships with, and he's done an immeasurable job filling the leadership void with Derrick Rose hurt. I'd take a healthy Noah over any big man in the league; hell, I'd take any Noah. What a special player, one who has interwoven into the fabric of his adopted city almost seamlessly. Just wait until Game 3 of the Miami series to see the reaction he gets from the raucous United Center crowd.

I can't say enough about the coaching job of Tom Thibodeau. For my money, he's the best coach in any sport any where. Find me another coach that sees the decimation his team has endured and yet still find a way to grind out a series the way the Bulls just did. He's only in his third season as the Bulls coach but has already established a culture here that perfectly fits both the team and the city. His refusal to recognize any weakness in his team, to offer any excuses for play because of injury, and his adherence to defensive and fundamental principles has given his team, city, and fans the belief that the Bulls can beat anyone, anywhere. Just wait until everyone writes the Bulls off against the Heat. Thibs, and his team, believe the exact opposite.

Thibs has set up something special
Somehow, someway, Thibs just makes it work every game. I bemoaned his inability to adjust on the fly, his supposed rigidity in both lineups, minutes, and strategy. That was, of course, until I realized that Thibs goes with what works at the time and only sticks to defense, hustle, and rebounding. He'll never deviate from those, but in this series alone we've seen him switch to Marquis Teague when need be for valuable minutes, switch off the ball-handling abilities to Marco Belinelli when Robinson isn't facilitating the offense effectively, drop Rip Hamilton from the rotation completely, and trust players to perform where maybe he hadn't before. This just shows to me that the Bulls' players aren't the only ones learning in the Thibodeau era - Thibs is learning just as much from his team.

Obviously, given the short rotation the Bulls were operating with this series it may seem redundant to focus on some individual accomplishments beyond Noah's undeniable play. But I wanted to especially note the play of Nate Robinson in Game 4, Noah the entire series, Boozer throughout for the most part as well, Hinrich in the early part of the series, Teague in Game 7, Jimmy Butler from Game 3 on, and Belinelli in Games 6 and 7. Those guys laid it out there.

I don't know if this Bulls team will beat Miami, but I do know that it won't be easy for the Heat. The Bulls know this Miami team and they play them well. They're going to show up for Game 1, only 2 days after finishing off a tough and exhausting series, ready to play. They'll play the Heat tough, offering up that quick punch in the mouth that has become so characteristic of these Bulls. I don't put it past these Bulls to give Miami a battle and potentially even shock some people. This team has nothing to lose and they play like it. Miami probably spent most of Game 7 rooting for Brooklyn, because they know the physical, grinding battle they're about to deal with. I can't wait for it to get started.