The playoffs so far have been far from surprising. The only real surprising thing so far has been Phoenix’s poor showing against a wounded Portland. However, game 1 is the easiest to steal and easiest to recover from. One of the least surprising things about the playoffs has been the fact that the Chicago Bulls haven’t backed down from the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers and can actually compete.
A person sometimes use the word “scrappy” like it is a derogatory term, but in Chicago’s case it is a compliment. The Bulls are bluntly put, not that talented. What that means is that they aren’t talented enough to beat a team playing poorly, especially not playoff-caliber teams. They must play well, and for them, that means hustling (mainly Joakim Noah) and relying on Derrick Rose to be Derrick Rose.
Rose has been expectedly spectacular, driving into the lane like he was the pace car at Daytona. He routinely cuts into the lane with ease reserved for layup lines. He has to be one of the three fastest players in the league, especially with the ball in his hands (LeBron, and either Westbrook or Rondo fill the other slot).
He has improved his mid range game, first demonstrated in last season’s epic against Boston in the first round. His slowed presence early in the season has disappeared as the months progressed and his perceived sluggishness and/or uninterested play were soon written off correctly for a bum ankle.
Now, back on the stage where his immense talent belongs, Rose is again shining. He leads a Bulls team where he is so clearly the first and best option for buckets. Noah is, if not equally important, then very close to Rose in terms of importance. He brings qualities that aren’t always identifiable except in the win column or in educated writing or analysis. The rebounding differential with and without Noah is certainly noticeable, and any game watched is instantly evident what he brings, especially around the basket.
Then Luol Deng resides as the other member of this trinity, possessing some weird aspect to his game that relegates Chicago to below average without him and slightly better than adequate with him. He provides scoring in the absence of other options, able to post up or shoot the occasional mid-range jumper. His defense is respectable when given reason, bodying up on other athletic forwards (in this case LeBron).
The rest of the team consists of fill-in pieces, the noteworthy being Gibson, Hinrich, Miller, Murray, and maybe Pargo for the rare instances.
This team, as was common belief even as far back as a year ago, has the current crest of being a dangerous team to veteran teams and has the nadir of being below average without Deng and/or Noah in the lineup. They let Ben Gordon and scoring potential leave for richer (literally, not symbolically) pastures in Detroit, then trade away playoff contributor John Salmons in order to make a run at a free agent this summer. The assumption was that Chicago, as was the trend at the time, would miss the playoffs anyway so why not build for the future?
However, as being a tough team is ingrained in their DNA (does Vinny get any of this credit? How can he not?), they qualify for the playoffs despite being without Noah, Deng, and chose to be without Gordon and Salmons for many games during the season. They developed swagger at some point during the season, perhaps after realizing that even when they went on extended losing streaks they weren’t dead.
Derrick Rose guaranteed that they would make the playoffs weeks before the season was to end. It was no Namath promise, but for the soft-spoken Rose it spoke volumes about what this meant to Rose and the rest of the Bulls to still maintain a level of success. Then they actually did it, ensuring that their front man wasn’t going to look like one of the countless fools who make empty promises only meant to create newspaper headlines and destined to be forgotten.
Then Noah, who isn’t afraid to rub some people the wrong way like a rattlesnake’s fangs rub some people the wrong way, said he wanted the Cavaliers. He may have been criticized, some blaming him for rousing LeBron into some bestial form that was rumored to be appearing in the series. But that is what a young team like the Bulls need.
That is the swagger that needs to develop before the team can mature into a legitimate winner. These teams are all good, there is no point to being afraid of a team, especially one that you have already beaten twice (granted, not the exact same team either time). Still, Noah has made the series more interesting than just another 1-8 series that could be a boring sweep.
And to their full credit, the Bulls haven’t blinked when confronted by Cleveland and the powerful LeBron. Noah has only added more fuel to the fire, looking to harness it and perhaps cook some hot dogs on the raging flame while all of Cleveland fumed with anger at his comments. But Noah hasn’t backed down; knowing that doing so would be terrible for both the future and present.
Nobody expects the Bulls to win this series, and only a handful expects them to even win a single game. However, most expect the Bulls to do exactly what they are doing and that is to be competitive. This series is feisty, almost like old rivalries, only without the recent history between the teams.
Numerous YouTube hits have been made on the Bulls-Cavs confrontation earlier in the season with Noah and James exchanging words about the appropriateness of certain dance routines. This isn’t very friendly, and certainly not so after Noah’s persistence in disturbing Cleveland on and off the court.
They are unfazed by the situation; they just went through it last season. Derrick Rose isn’t afraid to take any shot inside of the arc. He and LeBron trade baskets on a regular basis, Rose unwilling to accept the inevitable. Now they are down 2-0 in the series, but it is unreasonable to assume that they will bow down to the clearly better Cavaliers. Winning at least one game isn’t beyond reason, two might be a stretch but this series could easily go 6. They are going after LeBron on offense and defense. There is a fine line between brave and insane, but this says a lot about the Bulls and their mental state, whatever it actually is.
It isn’t saying much in the way of originality, but the Bulls are certainly a team of the future. If they are able to land a top free agent (not necessarily Bosh, Wade, or LeBron) they become instant threats to uproot Boston and Atlanta (especially if that free agent is Joe Johnson) and join Milwaukee as the teams in the East with the most improvement to look forward to in the coming years.
(Speculation is just that, but imagine what an addition like Joe Johnson could do for the Bulls who could use another wing scorer who is as versatile as Johnson is)