The Chicago Bulls are getting used to a lot of things these days.
There's Derrick Rose's MVP chants, for one. There were a smattering few last season in Chicago. This season they're about as common at the United Center as wallet-sized pocket schedules. And as the year has moved along, Rose has also gotten used to MVP chants on the road. They used to surprise him, he pointed out after Friday's win in Detroit, but now he's more gracious and appreciative than taken aback.
The Bulls are also getting used to having to wait to close out teams following touching halftime ceremonies. Last month, the team waited through a tribute to Chicago's first championship team from 1991. By the time the proceedings were over, a rather sluggish Bulls team allowed the Utah Jazz to turn the game from an embarrassing blowout to a more typical one-sided affair with the Bulls prevailing.
On Friday, a 37-minute halftime spent honoring Dennis Rodman (2 1/2 times the length of a typical halftime) was followed by nearly a 10-minute delay after a popcorn spill along the sideline. With the Pistons allowed to stew and look at the looming deficit on the scoreboard for longer than usual, they rallied to outscore the Bulls by a whole six points over the final two quarters. Again, though, Chicago prevailed.
Winning in the face of increased expectations -- mainly because the team is still finding new ways to win. Because it's still figuring itself out. Friday's victory was full of quick hits, an inside-out game that saw Carlos Boozer pick up seven assists, a total that doesn't really go a long way toward explaining the way he was whipping the ball to teammates out of the post. And though he may have deferred too often, Boozer still managed 22 points.
Kurt Thomas, starting in place of the injured Joakim Noah, nailed a baseline jumper to clinch the game. When Noah is healthy, Thomas rarely plays while obscured in the rotation by Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. And yet, when Noah is on the inactive list, Thomas plays heavy minutes in a rotation setting that you don't often see in the NBA. He was probably the best defensive player on the floor again last night, and you almost have to look at his touch as something that has yet to be taken advantage of, even if he did lead the Bulls in scoring in a game against the Bucks in January. Yes, Kurt Thomas led a team in scoring in 2011. A good team, too.
Actually, a great team. A contender for the championship that with Friday's win, and Boston's loss in Atlanta, may have just about clinched home court in the Eastern Conference throughout the playoffs. Chicago is now three games up on Boston, and, if anything, Miami is the next-biggest worry, at 2 1/2 games back.
Though Rose has led the Bulls to the playoffs in his first two seasons as a pro, this is still a new team that honestly feels as if it's just scratching the surface. Not in terms of decade-long potential -- though Rose is still quite young at age 22. The Bulls rely on several players who are either in their prime, one step ahead of it or a few steps beyond it.
No, the Bulls excite because they still appear to get better by the game, while having yet to tap into several resources that were either put on standby due to injury or unfamiliarity. As is the case with Carlos Boozer, both elements have left him as sort of an afterthought this season.
This is nobody's fault, though Tom Thibodeau (who should be a runaway candidate for Coach of the Year) can be criticized for not trying to play Boozer more often with a defense-first second unit that often relies on the great footwork of Boozer's backup in Taj Gibson to make its hay. A look at Chicago's five-man units reveals that the Bulls seem to do just fine with Boozer out there alongside Gibson or Asik, with the caveat that just about any five-man unit Thibs has tossed out there this season has done "just fine" as well.
As a starter, Boozer's pick-and-roll brilliance hasn't been featured as often as it should be. Derrick Rose isn't an unwilling passer, but he is too often an uncomfortable one, uneasy at the thought of dropping a dumped-down bounce pass to an open spot that Boozer will slide into a half-second later, as Deron Williams effortlessly did with Boozer in Utah. This has limited Boozer's looks, and turned him into sort of the ultimate garbage scorer. Managing 18 points a game somehow without being force-fed the ball.
This changed on Friday. Though Rose had 18 points in the first half, and Boozer passed up several good looks, the ball was inside quite a bit as Chicago made an attempt at playing inside-out even at the expense of a blowout win. Following the win, Thibodeau credited Boozer's movement and quick decisions with the rock -- and the new wrinkle can't help but turn Chicago into a more formidable team overall, improving the squad's 13th-ranked offense. Boozer turns 30 next November. The time to take advantage of his gifts is now.
Again, this slow crawl toward a Boozer-heavy offense isn't a result of some sort of selfish streak on the part of Derrick Rose. It's a function of Rose's role, as he was asked to dominate and score in high school back in 2007, in college in 2008 and in a simplistic Vinny Del Negro offense for two years. For all the MVP chants, this is still a 22-year-old learning to play the hardest position in the game. He's earned our admiration, but he also deserves our patience.
As with the Heat and (their fans hope, at least) the Celtics, the Bulls still need time to sort out their ways, even if the playoffs start two weeks from Saturday. Luckily for Chicago, the team's spirited and focused play has allowed them a buffer to work with as the season winds down. We hope Thibodeau and his players recognize this, because a three-week pre-playoff season (let's include the team's potential first-round matchup against Indiana) could be the best thing moving forward for this developing group.
You can't knock the team's success, not at 55-20 entering Saturday night's game against Toronto, but you can try to improve on it. Involve Boozer. Switch rotations. Develop confidence in areas that haven't been exploited yet. Even while playing as they have all season, a 4-3 finish to the regular season (Chicago has sometimes let some games against lesser lights slip away) is entirely possible, and it's completely feasible for the Miami Heat to run 5-1 over the same season-ending stretch.
This would still leave Miami a full game in back of a Bulls team for the best record in the East. And even if the teams tie to end the year, Chicago has the tiebreaker. Don't call it yet, for the Bulls (though it's close), but don't call for complacency.
Call for Carlos. Call for creativity. Call for cohesion in areas that haven't been explored yet. Call for chaos, initially, that could turn into chemistry. Remember that the second round of the playoffs may not start for another month, and the eventual NBA champions won't be crowned for another 11 weeks. Most teams can see the finish line right now, but for Chicago this just needs to be a pit stop. Maybe time to try on a new set of tires.
They've earned the opportunity to tinker. One would hope they take advantage of it.