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Bulls in a familiar position
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By Sam Smith | 2.11.2015 | 8:37 a.m. CT
It was 24 years ago, the game before the All-Star break, that the Bulls played one of the most significant regular season games in franchise history. That’s because players on those early championship teams believed that game provided the jump start on the ride to greatness.
Could Thursday’s national TNT pre All-Star game between the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers in the United Center again prove to be such a game?
“It’s a regular season game, of course,” acknowledged Taj Gibson. “But a good team, a playoff team. They’re hot; everyone is jockeying for playoff position. We have a nice little run going. We’re just trying for position in the playoffs. We understand the seeds are really important. It would be good to end the first half of the season the right way to give us some momentum for the second half.”
Although the Atlanta Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference, everyone believes the road to the Finals will go through Cleveland because of LeBron James. With Wednesday’s win over the Miami Heat, the Cavs have won 14 of their last 15 and are just a half game behind the Bulls for the Central Division lead.
Perhaps more significantly, the Cavs have won both games against the Bulls this season. The first was the Bulls home opener in overtime after Derrick Rose suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter and didn’t return. Jimmy Butler didn’t play in that game. Then with Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy out, the Cavs dominated the Bulls in Cleveland on Martin Luther King Day.
Again, it appears both teams could be missing players.
Kirk Hinrich is out with turf toe and Butler seems unlikely to play after aggravating a shoulder sprain in Tuesday’s win over the Kings. For the Cavs, Kevin Love is questionable after sustaining a corneal abrasion in the win over Miami. Though after the game he indicated to media he intended to play Thursday. If Love does play, he could be pivotal. James doesn’t like to score as much with this team. So it’s important to stop his supporting cast, especially Love early. Also, Timofey Mozgov had a big game with 20 points over the Heat Wednesday after 15 points and 15 rebounds against the Bulls in January when the Cavs crushed the Bulls 54-40 on the boards. The Bulls haven’t rebounded or boxed out well of late, but they should have all their big men for this game. Earlier in October, Tristan Thompson had 12 offensive rebounds against the Bulls. Will they be bullied again?
Still, it’s an important measure for both teams.
The Cavs could sweep the Bulls in Chicago for the season, which would be a major momentum edge for the playoffs while perhaps on the way to a season sweep. A 3-0 edge would clinch the season tiebreaker for the Cavs. The Bulls need to show they can compete with the hottest team in the league that stands in the way—as James has stood in their way since spurning them in free agency in 2010—of any title aspirations.
The 1990-91 Bulls, good but disappointing in previous playoffs, were in a similar position going into the game before the All-Star break in 1991.
It wasn’t precisely the same situation as the Bulls were in Auburn Hills to play the Pistons, their perennial rivals who had dominated them. Back in December, the Pistons had blown out the Bulls in Auburn Hills and it seemed the Bulls still weren’t good enough. The Bulls had a Christmas Day win over the Pistons back in Chicago shortly thereafter with the Pistons staging a sort of sitin/pout for being defending champs and playing on the road Christmas Day.
The Bulls had never won a regular season game in the Palace of Auburn Hills. They believed they had to demonstrate to both the Pistons and themselves they could win in Detroit. Perhaps not as desperately this season since Bulls/Cavs isn’t quite that rivalry yet, but the Bulls want to show they can defeat a LeBron James team. They likely will have to if they want to go deep in the playoffs.
Plus, going into the All-Star break is an ideal time with a break coming up—and even longer this season—to gain confidence and set up a strong second half.
“We weren’t taking anything lightly like, ‘OK, it’s the last game before the All-Star break,” recalled Horace Grant, the power forward for that Bulls eventual title team. “We were focusing on going in there and getting a win over the team we had to beat. We didn’t want to say send a message because we hadn’t beaten them. We had to focus on the best way to get a win.
“We felt we go into Detroit and lose that game and the momentum is not with us for the second half of the season,” recalled Grant, who is in New York as an NBA ambassador for All-Star weekend.
The Bulls win would require 30 points from Michael Jordan and 20 points from Scottie Pippen. B.J. Armstrong came off the bench to hit two big baskets when it appeared the Pistons would take control with a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then the Bulls outscored the Pistons 10-4 to close the game with Jordan scoring all 10 for the 95-93 victory.
Afterward, coach Phil Jackson said, "This kind of gets the monkey off our backs."
The Bulls won nine straight after the All-Star break and were 29-7 post All-Star. They steamed through the playoffs 15-2 to win their first NBA title. Players later pointed to that game as the biggest win of the regular season.
“That Detroit game was more or less a confidence boost that told us we are a complete team,” said Grant. “Going in and beating the team we haven’t literally gotten over the hump yet with. It was like we were saying, ‘Wheels up and ready to go.’”