COMMENTARY | After a weekend sweep of games against Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the Chicago Bulls are 13-9, which was the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference after the come-from-behind victory over the Nets Saturday.
Pretty lofting place for a team playing without its best player, Derrick Rose, and without any other legitimate superstars to take up the slack in Rose's absence.
But the Bulls of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are pulling out wins in a stretch of games in which they play nothing but winning teams. The difficult stretch started with a home game against the New York Knicks Dec. 8, and continues Monday with a game at Memphis, followed by a home game against the Boston Celtics Tuesday. (They don't play a losing team until Dec. 29.)
Along the way, the only blip was a home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who are currently out of the Bulls' class, with two superstars to call upon, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
It's hard to tell whether the current winning ways mark a trend, or just happen to be five wins in six games. But there are details about the victories that seem to indicate the starless Bulls are coming together, and could be a dangerous team when Rose returns.
For instance, they are winning without two-thirds of their projected starting lineup - Rose and shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who is nursing a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. In his stead, Marco Belinelli, a pickup from New Orleans during the off-season, has been a star of sorts, averaging 17 points a game, and hitting key shots like the driving layup he canned Saturday that finally gave the Bulls the lead with 22 seconds remaining against Brooklyn.
Kirk Hinrich, who was re-signed to replace Rose during his absence, has been out with a couple of injuries, but Nate Robinson has served well in his place, and has averaged almost 11 points a game in the last four contests. He has had 22 assists to just seven turnovers in that time.
Jimmy Butler, the second-year swingman, has contributed off the bench, and has turned out to be a defensive find for coach Tom Thibodeau, who likes anything that has to do with defense.
There's more. There is Joakim Noah's 30-point, 23-rebound performance against Detroit, a game that lifted the eyes of anyone not aware of what Noah has been up to this season; Luol Deng, who his averaging almost 18 points a game and more than seven rebounds, and Carlos Boozer, who is averaging 14 points and almost 10 boards a game.
What's it all mean? It means the Bulls could be fully loaded when Rose returns. And that is a hot topic now that Ricky Rubio has completed his return from an ACL tear in eight months for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Bulls fans are dying to see Rose again, although most of the smart ones want to wait until Rose is 100 percent healthy again. (There are some who want to jump the gun and get him back at the start of the calendar year, but March seems like a smarter bet).
The Bulls beat the Nets despite trailing by six points with five minutes left and by four points with two minutes left. They came from behind with Belinelli, Robinson, Deng and Noah, and a surprising dash of rookie Marquis Teague, who played the final seven minutes of the game for a coach who supposedly HATES playing rookies in key minutes. Teague actually played lockdown defense on Deron Williams in the final minute, preventing him from getting the Nets back into the game.
(The early report on Teague was that he could not play in the NBA. He is turning that idea upside down).
"Down the stretch, Coach knows he can call on myself, Rook (Teague), Taj (Gibson) to come in and step up,'' Robinson said. "We are ready. When we get 100 percent healthy, we will be more dangerous than we are now."
Despite missing their best player, the Bulls rank in the top five in the league in several defensive categories (points per game, field goal perentage, 3-point field goal percentage, and rebounds). They are the best team in the league in winming low-scoring games, which is good, since they aren't going to score a lot of points without Rose around.
What does it mean? It means NBA fans need to keep an eye on the Bulls to see how they do for the next couple of months. If they keep winning like they are now, imagine what they will be like when Rose comes back.
Perhaps now you know why it is hard for some fans to wait until March.
Kent McDill has covered the Bulls for three different companies: for United Press International from 1985-88, for the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill., from 1988-99 and currently for NBA.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title "100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die'' published by Triumph Books.