COMMENTARY | For the first two seasons of the Tom Thibodeau era, there were at least two givens: The Bulls could stop almost anyone defensively, and they would not lose more than two games in a row.
Both of those standards have been breached in this third season under "Thibs". The Bulls are no longer dominant on the defensive end of the court, and they have lost three games in a row - to the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland and Houston for the first time since Thibodeau became coach for the 2010-11 season. They ended that streak with a 93-86 win at Milwaukee Nov. 24.
Yes, the losses were all on the road, but the Bulls played three tough road games in a row before and Thibodeau employed his talent on the floor in such a way as to avoid any major letdowns. But this time, the Bulls lost these games with an apparent lack of desire, toughness and firepower.
So it is time to reassess goals for this team. No longer can they aim for being among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they have to concentrate on being good enough to get to the playoffs.
Saturday's game against Milwaukee was the first of back-to-back games against the Bucks, a Central Division opponent having a great start to the season. Even though they are early, these games will go a long way in determining just where the Bulls will stand when, or if, Rose comes back from his knee injury to play for the team in the spring.
Before Saturday's contest, the Bucks led the Central Division with a record of 6-4. The Bulls were 5-6, percentage points behind the 6-7 Indiana Pacers for second place in the division. Saturday's decision tightened things up in the division standings but Monday's outcome to change that as well.
Division races are meaningless in any tangible sense. That's unfortunate, because if division standings and titles meant anything at all, there might be a different feel to the regular season. But the signficance to a division title in the playoffs is negligible.
Still, the Bulls have dominated the Central the past two seasons. While they certainly cannot dominate again without Rose, they need to be competitive, and maintain a standard that keeps them competing for the division title all season long.
Carlos Boozer took a bunch of heat last season when he claimed the Bulls could hang their hat on a division title after they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Philadelphia 76ers. Division titles were not important to a team that held the No. 1 seed in the East two years in a row and was really thinking about getting to the NBA Finals.
But now, there has to be a downshift of expectation. The Bulls and their fans need to be aiming for a division title, even without Rose. It's a way to keep this season from being in a holding pattern, as everyone awaits the return of the only superstar player.
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.
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- Tom Thibodeau