Bulls’ journey remarkable, but not yet over

The Bulls again became one of the major stories of the NBA with their soaring work ethic and commitment to what was right about the game, writes Sam Smith of the 2013-14 regular season.

The Bulls open the 2014 NBA playoffs 6 p.m. Sunday in the United Center against the Washington Wizards, and as we’ll hear plenty it’s a new season, everything starts over, everyone is zero and zero and anything can happen.

It rarely does, though before we get into that it’s worth taking a bit of a look in this journey’s rear view mirror at one of the more unusual season in franchise history.

This was a season that began with as much hope as anytime in the 1990’s championship seasons with the league’s biggest story, the return from a year away of former MVP Derrick Rose.

And the players had a feeling, you could tell. Miami would have a tough time going for a fourth Finals. The Pacers were somewhat overrated thanks to a good 2013 playoff matchup with Miami. With Rose back, this could finally be their time.

“You have to think of having the best record,” said Luol Deng in training camp. “You’ve got to be healthy, obviously. I’m not taking anything away from Miami, but it could have been very different if San Antonio had the better record. The finish in our mind matters. From the start of the year, that’s how our coach coaches. He wants to win every game, wants the best record. That’s how we play.”

It all turned to gloom after an exhilarating month of watching Rose display the explosive drives that the 2012 playoffs injury took away. Less than a month into the season, Rose was gone again with yet another season long knee injury that left the players in shock and despair.

As they began to recover from that, the team’s veteran icon, Deng, was traded in a financial move that left the players teetering on the edge of surrender. After all, were they the only ones who cared?

But slowly, relentlessly and then inevitably with the leadership of Joakim Noah, the Bulls again became one of the major stories of the NBA with their soaring work ethic and commitment to what was right about the game. They would become the team no one wanted to play to open the playoffs and the most unlikely of near 50-game winners.

“I look at it as a team that didn’t want to lay down,” said Taj Gibson, one of the breakout stars and a top contender for Sixth Man of the Year honors. “We didn’t lay down. We still have that same mentality: One guy goes down the next guy is going to step up and take advantage of the situation. I feel like that’s what we did. Everybody stepped up their game and pushed through to the very end.

“People will say what they want to say; we’re family in this locker room,” reiterated Gibson. “We focused on ourselves. What we believe in. Even when the bandwagon is empty, we are going to believe in ourselves no matter what. That’s the determination we have.”

And for a while it was very easy to get a seat on that wagon.

It was nothing official and you didn’t get t-shirts or hats or anything or a family trip to Disney World, but the Bulls had the best preseason record, an undefeated 8-0 with a pair of wins over the Pacers. So coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t hiding anything. He was playing it out from the start. But there was a method to all of it as Rose needed conditioning as he would not have his first 20-point scoring game, ironically, until the game he was injured in Portland. Noah was hurt early in training camp and missed much of the preseason.

So Thibodeau wanted to give the team a jump start, and Gibson from the first showed flashes of the post threat and jump shooter he was to be.

“The thing is there was going to be even if we had Derrick, there was going to be a period of adjustment with him coming back after two years off,” said Thibodeau. “There was an adjustment period there. And then the Luol piece was a big piece. And Jo and Jimmy were hurt at the beginning of the season. So we had a lot of variables.”

The Heat was ready this time after being embarrassed by the Bulls in previous award ceremonies and won the opener going away on their ring night in Miami.

Rose was upbeat, as usual, and pleased to be back.

“If anything I’m disappointed in the loss,” said Rose, who flew most of his family to the game, including his young son and rented out several suites in the American Airlines Arena. “My performance, I can easily change that by making shots and turning down the turnovers. It’s something we can learn from. It’s not the end of the world; it’s not the playoffs where we’re going to be eliminated. We can fix things. A learning experience. Tonight we did not show what we were capable of.”

But the Bulls went home and Rose was back!

With the Bulls trailing 81-80 with 5.7 seconds left against the Knicks, Rose put in a ridiculous, running floater from the right baseline halfway behind the backboard with seven-foot Tyson Chandler in his face. It made for an 82-81 victory in Rose’s nationally televised homecoming.

Chicago was dancing.

"I want to be known as one of those players,” said Rose. “When it is my time in the fourth quarter I can’t shy away from shots. I just love being in that position, being in the fourth quarter having the ball in my hands. Making the decisions is going to make me a better player, so in the playoffs we’re used to it and used to being in those types of games.”

And then Rose was gone again, a simple cut to get back on defense during the November road trip. The Bulls never had a worse one.

“The doctor looked at him, but he's scheduled to have an MRI tomorrow (in Los Angeles),” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "He has pain and felt like he couldn't push off the right knee.

“Change of direction or just running,” Thibodeau explained, although the fear was in everyone’s voice. “I don’t think it was a contact play. Anytime anyone goes down you are concerned. Derrick’s a hard guy to read. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion. But we are concerned.”

It was a devastating blow for the players, mostly their concern for Rose whom they’d seen work so hard to get back, and then for their title hopes, pretty much gone like that. The Bulls in a L.A. fog went to play the Clippers and lost by 39, plummeting to 9-16, losing 11 of 14 after Rose’s injury.

After the team returned from the road trip in early December, Rose met with reporters for the last time during the season and declared again to return as good as ever.

“I don’t have anything to complain about,” said Rose. “The hard part that I had to go through in life period is living without getting what I want. I’ve got everything I want, but I can’t play the game that I love playing. But I have my son and I think he’s going to be huge in this process. I’ll be around him a lot.”

Asked about those who doubt him, Rose paused for a long time and then with emotion declared: “You can be a fool if you want to. Dead serious. I know I’m going to be alright.”

It was heartening to the players as well as the Bulls got Miami back in the United Center at the same time and overwhelmed the Heat behind Noah’s 17 points and 15 rebounds, pounding his chest, screaming encouragement, unholstering his pantomime pistols.

“If we played Miami 82 times a season,” Deng said, “Jo would probably be the best player in the league. He loves playing against them. We all do. We get up for them. He did a great job setting the tone. From this morning he was up on everyone playing hard. During the game he was reminding everyone to keep playing hard and that’s what we need from him. And when he does that we feed off his energy. We need that.”

The Bulls continued to recover with a nice Christmas Day win in Brooklyn behind native son Gibson and won in Memphis with iron man Jimmy Butler leading in scoring.

The Bulls also found something in their holiday stocking with the recent pickup of released D.J. Augustin and his good shooting.

“It’s coming around,” said Thibodeau. “It’s good to get guys back. I thought our starters were very solid and then our bench guys came in and did a terrific job. I thought Taj was super. D.J. gave us a good lift. I like the combination when D.J. and Kirk were in together. I thought Jimmy was phenomenal for a first game (back from his sprained ankle). You’ve got guys who are hard to guard and it requires great concentration and effort and he did that.”

But the Bulls were still below .500 when the team was offered an opportunity in early January: Flip Deng for the contract of Andrew Bynum, which they could buy out and get out of the luxury tax to make future free agent transactions possible. There wasn’t much objection from the community. In fact, there was a strong reaction from fans and local media to give up the season for a draft pick.

But it was seemingly a knockout blow to the players.

Noah, who was close with Deng, took several days to even gather his thoughts. But once he did his eloquent address stirred the better angels of the players’ natures and you sensed this group of players was going to do more than endure.

“I know a lot of people say this is a business and all that, but this game is more than a business to me,” said Noah. “I put everything I've got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way, so it was hard for me to digest. But that's just my perspective. Everybody has a different job. I'm not mad at anybody. I'm not mad at the organization or anything like that. It's just that my brother isn't here, so I just need time to digest that. I feel when I come to the game and see the guys selling newspapers on the street; it’s cold outside. He sees me driving and he’s excited. He’s like, 'Let’s go Bulls. Get it done tonight.' I feel I play for that guy.

"I look in the arena when the team calls a timeout and see this guy who looks this big jump up and down (in the upper deck, 300 level)," Noah reiterated. "That’s the guy I play for."

It was an eloquent statement that defined the role of an athlete and the community. Noah added, “No tanking.”

The Bulls began to win, five straight to get back to 17-18 with a win against Charlotte January 11, a loss in Washington, but then three more wins in a row including overtime over the Lakers after a triple overtime win in Orlando.

“I thought around January we settled down,” said Thibodeau. “The pickup of D.J. was huge for us. He saved our season; we were good for him. We got a good rhythm going.”

The Bulls then went into San Antonio and got an impressive win over the Western Conference champs to start the long winter road trip, stumbled a bit and then came out strong into and out of the All-Star break, where Noah was a defensive star down the stretch in the East’s win. It also was when East coach Frank Vogel left his center on the bench to play Noah as the East sought the win. It would be a statement of sorts as Hibbert’s decline began.

Along with Noah’s ascension. Noah barely made the All-Star team as a reserve, but with the Bulls offense going more through Noah and the team responding to his aggression and enthusiasm, Noah became a regular triple double threat, got four and became a favorite to be a top five in the league Most Valuable Player voting. Noah would go on to lead the team in assists and post historic assist numbers for centers.

And then it was Miami again after the All-Star break, and the Bulls with Augustin scoring and Noah rebounding and playmaking won in overtime.

“They pummeled us in the paint with those second chance opportunities,” lamented Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Not only did they get the offensive rebounds but every single time they got one, they scored. Thirteen (offensive rebounds) isn’t totally outrageous, but the 27 (second chance points) is. At the other end of the court, they grinded us the way they do.”

Enthused Noah: “This is what you play basketball for. I’m loving it. I’m having a great time. I’m having a blast out there. Beating Miami. I don’t care if it’s regular season; it’s always special.”

The special feelings continued to grow as the NBA world finally began to take notice and Noah became the subject for a parade of national writers coming to Chicago. They discovered this prize exulting in plain sight.

The Bulls split with the Pacers, enhancing their claim to play with anyone after wins over basically every top team in the league. They won 13 of their last 18 to get a most unlikely home court start to the playoffs in this season that looked more about despair and hopelessness that became the best sport has to offer.

“We did as well as we could do,” said Thibodeau. “I’m proud of what the team did. A lot of people thought it would not work out the way it did. These guys fought with great determination, great will. And they responded well to the challenge we had. There’s still a long way to go. As a team we can make another step and we want to concentrate on our improvement and keep moving forward.”