This has been some kind of a week for the Chicago Bulls. Currently tied with about a quarter of the NBA for best record in the league, the Bulls are off to a blistering 5-1 start. But the good times have been marred by some setbacks; Patrick Williams has dislocated his wrist and is probably done for the season, and Zach LaVine is playing with a torn ligament in his non-shooting thumb. A loss on Thursday night to the New York Knicks also helped dampen the spirits of the Bulls faithful, but a bounce-back win over the undefeated (at the time) Utah Jazz on Saturday night, raised my hopes and ended the week on a high note. There is no denying that the Bulls are a much improved team this season, resilient and tough.
Paying Respect to Legends – Thursday’s 104-103 loss to the Knicks was also Joakim Noah Night. Family, friends, former teammates, and fans of the best center in Bulls history showed up at the United Center to wish Noah a happy retirement. While the Bulls didn’t come away with a victory, they certainly showed the fighting spirit Noah was known for, coming up big on defense late in the game, and competing with the Knicks all the way to the final possession. The night struck a chord with me, Noah being one of my all-time favorite Bulls players. I teared up a bit when they played the obligatory tribute video, and it was fun to hear Noah reminisce about his time in Chicago. The Bulls followed up Noah Night with a celebration on Saturday for newly minted Basketball Hall of Famer, Toni Kukoc. Kukoc was one of the first European players to really make it in the NBA, and he was an integral part of the Bulls second Three-Peat. As a Big that could score from the perimeter, handle the basketball, and create off the dribble, Kukoc was very much a player ahead of his time. He would probably be getting MVP consideration if he played in today’s era. Congratulations Toni Kukoc and Joakim Noah on the tremendous careers, and thank you for all the effort and entertainment you gave Chicago over the years.
3 Minutes of Empty Possessions – With about three minutes left in Thursday’s game against the Knicks, the Bulls were down by double digits and struggling to get stops on defense. It looked like New York was going to win decisively and really shove the Bulls back into mediocrity. The Bulls were 4-0 going into the game, but they hadn’t really played anyone of note. The Knicks were their first real test of the season, and it looked like they were going to fail that test without putting up much of a fight, but the last 3 minutes proved just how strong the Bulls defense is. They locked the Knicks up, forcing bad shots, misses and turnovers. The best look the Knicks got at scoring points was a pair of free throws for All-Star Big, Julius Randle, which he missed. The tight defense sparked the offense, and the Bulls clawed their way to within one point of the Knicks, giving themselves a chance to win the game with a last second shot. DeMar DeRozan’s final effort ultimately fell short, but the big take away from the loss is that the Bulls defense is for real, and it will allow them to hang with the best teams in the league.
Filling in for Williams – As awful as the injury to Patrick Williams is, his absence has opened up minutes for other players on the roster. The effort from those players helped the Bulls beat the Utah Jazz, 107-99, and cemented Chicago as a top team in the NBA. Javonte Green, who played extremely well with the starters during the preseason, was back at starting power forward for the Bulls. He brought his signature energy and effort to the lineup and made some nice plays that turned defense into offense. Other players that stepped up to fill in for Williams: Derrick Jones Jr had a nice game, blocking shots, jamming on fast breaks, and generally being a human highlight reel. Ayo Dosunmu gave some quality minutes off the bench, and helped lock down the perimeter with his defense. Tony Bradley also gave some good minutes, showing his ability to rim protect, and getting involved in the Bulls offense in the pick-and-roll. It was another solid defensive effort from the Bulls bench, and the bounce back victory against a perennial NBA powerhouse gives me a ton of hope for the rest of this season.
The Bulls are banged up and hurting, but they haven’t stopped fighting, and more importantly, they haven’t stopped winning. DeMar DeRozan has been a steady source of offense, even as Nikola Vucevic continues to struggle finding his rhythm, and Zach LaVine fights through the pain of his torn thumb ligament. The defense from Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Green, Dosunmu, etc. has set the tone for this season. The Bulls will live or die by their defensive effort. Even with the shots not falling like we’re used to seeing for Zach and Vooch, the Bulls have the best record in the league. You have to figure Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley are looking for a way to bolster the roster after the loss of Williams, and I’m excited to see who they can get.
Meanwhile, the rough stretch of games for the Bulls continues this week with a Monday contest in Boston against the Celtics, a Wednesday game in Philadelphia against the ’76ers, and a rematch with the ’76ers on Saturday in Chicago. And suddenly, with the performances the Bulls have had against the Knicks and Jazz, these games don’t look quite as intimidating as they did at the beginning of the season. The Bulls might still lose all three of these games, but if they do, Boston and Philly will have had to earn those victories. The Bulls are a far superior team than they’ve been in the recent past. They are tough both mentally and physically. They are resilient, bouncing back from injuries and defeat. They reflect the fighting spirit of Joakim Noah and Toni Kukoc, and it’s made the Bulls a top team in the NBA. For me, the fear of losing these next three games has genuinely transformed into the thrill of possibly winning them. Until they do, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!