The Heart Of The Bulls
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The Chicago Bulls are so resilient and have been that way for three seasons since head coach Tom Thibodeau took charge, posting NBA-best records in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, while also getting the most out of the 2012-13 team that lost one-time NBA MVP Derrick Rose for the entire regular season.
Now, in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, Chicago has worked its way to a 3-2 lead over the Brooklyn Nets and can close out this series with a good showing at home in Game 6 Thursday.
If the Bulls do so, it is a testament to Tibbs and his top-flight coaching staff that they have squeezed out so many wins this season from a team without Rose, and with a seriously hobbled Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.
But such is life with these Chicago Bulls the past three seasons.
They're all heart.
And it starts with the heart of the lineup that has been known to give 40-plus quality minutes a night when all the chips are on the line.
The key three on this elite defensive squad, in my mind, are Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler.
Noah has triple responsibility: guarding Brook Lopez, expertly defusing pick-and-rolls and patrolling the paint against penetrating former All-Star guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
Likewise, Deng and Butler have the jobs of keeping Iso Joe at bay at alternating various times.
The center and wings are so vital to Chicago's fifth-ranked defense, which was rated first the previous two seasons, that it is doubtful the Bulls could beat the Nets without any of these key components in the playoffs.
That is why it is so special to watch Noah's every step in these playoffs.
You know the man is hurting with each sprint up court. Each jump stop. Each hedge on a pick.
Yet Noah is still able to give 27 minutes per game where he in turn gives Chicago 100 percent of what's left in the tank.
Same is true with backup power forward Taj Gibson, who has played 15 minutes a night now, but does so with aplomb.
Still, Chicago is one win away from advancing to the second round, where it would play the Miami Heat.
Can the wounded Bulls muster up one more heroic performance in Game 6--or Game 7, if necessary--with their heart-of-the-lineup not beating at normal pace?
The Noah-Deng-Butler defensive core, which had a +6.5 net rating in 423 regular-season minutes together, has struggled against Brooklyn so far, posting a -16.7 net rating in 94 playoff minutes together, with a mediocre 103.0 defensive rating in the postseason.
Such is the challenge of taking on an elite center-wing core of Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, who themselves had a +6.1 net rating in 1159 regular-season minutes.
The Bulls' best bet in countering Brooklyn's strong starting lineup, which also features point guard Deron Williams and power forward Reggie Evans, is to properly complement its heart of the lineup, with either the offensive duo of Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson, who have a +5.4 net rating advantage as a duo in 106 playoff minutes, or the defensive combo of Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich (+2.4 in 33 playoff minutes).
I know the sample sizes are small, but they're working and both combos make sense. Or at least, much more sense than the Boozer-Hinrich or Gibson-Robinson combos that have also got equal play, thus far.
All too often, Boozer plays an overload of minutes--he is averaging 44 minutes per game in the playoffs--which, in turn, prevents the Gibson/Hinrich combo of getting on the floor much.
Granted, if Gibson can only give you 15, then 15 minutes is all you will get.
But I just appreciate the change-of-pace Robinson brings in this series when paired with Boozer, and I truly feel the Pain & Gain bodybuilding duo would be the perfect final-period change-up that can ignite Chicago fourth-quarter runs, ala Game 4 Sunday when Robinson went on a scoring binge.
Regardless of how they line up, it will be fun to see Boozer, Deng, Noah, etc. give you everything they have in this series.
Mainly because it embodies the city of Chicago and the spirit of the Bulls.
There is no other way to say it: These guys are all heart.