When national lights come on Thursday nights, Chicago Bulls are unbeatable

Slumping Cavaliers latest victim in Chicago's 20-game home winning streak in the spotlight

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – The Chicago Bulls are 31-39 this season, worthy of a one-way ticket to mid-lottery mediocrity.

The TNTBulls are 5-0, dragging their alter egos by the scruffs of their necks toward legitimacy and, still mathematically possible, the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

The regular Bulls routinely get beat by the weaker teams in the NBA – they’re 16-19 against opponents with losing records – and have blown seven games in which they led after three quarters. Worse, they’ve been down 33 times at the start of fourth quarters and in 29 of those, they’ve stayed down.

The TNTBulls get beat by no one. They don’t blow leads, they don’t get down and, even if they did, they’d spring up and grab the nearest jugular. They have won 20 consecutive home games as their eponymous selves – that is, games carried on NBA broadcast partner TNT, live from the United Center.

It’s a streak dating back to Feb. 28, 2013, before seven or eight of the current Bulls were even in the league. It started against a pre-Process Philadelphia 76ers and continued through victories over the likes of New York, Miami, Brooklyn, the Lakers and Oklahoma City – all when those teams were deemed formidable and/or entertaining enough to justify the national bookings by Turner Sports programmers.

This season, the TNTBulls have beaten Boston in October, San Antonio in December, the Celtics again in Feburary and now Golden State and Cleveland in March. The regular Bulls were 5-11 in December, 7-7 in February and 3-9 in March.

The TNTBulls never get called for traveling – their victims always travel to them. They can shoot 26-of-25 in a quarter and ask for change. They never think about offensive rebounds because, y’know, they don’t make mistakes. When the TNTBulls hit the weight room after practice, the weights get stronger. And they never get called for shot-clock violations – the TNTBulls decide what time it is.

So while LeBron James (28,599 points) was busy Thursday night at United Center scoring 26 to pass Shaquille O’Neal (28,596) for seventh place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, the TNTBulls – a.k.a., the Chuck Norrises of the NBA – were passing James and his Cleveland Cavaliers team for the fourth time this season.

The Cavs’ biggest lead came moments into the second half at 52-41. The TNTBulls scored 37 of the other 56 points in the third quarter and bothered Cleveland into nine missed 3-pointers in 12 tries in the fourth.

They bore, in other words, virtually no resemblance to the regular Chicago Bulls, the one that is 14-23 on the road and far less successful when neither Marv Albert nor Kevin Harlan is in their house.

What’s the difference between the TNTBulls and the regular Bulls?

“I would surmise the TNTBulls are on TNT,” center Robin Lopez said, cracking wise. “I’m going out on the limb there.”

Forward Jimmy Butler was next to take a crack at it.

“We just get lucky on Thursday nights, I guess,” Butler said, while wearing a makeshift eye patch after the game (he inadvertently had been poked by Cavs defender Iman Shumpert, while still scoring 25 points). “Or just Cleveland on bad nights, I guess. I don’t know. We want to continue to win these games.”

Yeah, right. The whole world knows that, now that the fluky and impossible-to-bottle TNT streak is getting widespread attention.

It’s the other games that are the problem. The ones – the many – that any team capable of going 4-0 against the NBA defending champions should be able to breeze through. Stick in their back pockets by the 24- or 36- minute marks against lesser competition and kick back for that secondary goal of player development over the final 12.

The TNTBulls’ mighty achievements stand in stark contrast to the regular Bulls’ failings and disappointments this season. In anywhere from a dozen to 15 games or more, they have squandered leads allegedly too big to blow, like the 15-point advantage in Toronto last week or the 10-pointer in the final three minutes against Atlanta in January that led to reality-show he said/he said’s from Butler, Dywane Wade and Rajon Rondo.

They have shown up in name only on too many nights, lifeless to start, flatlined to the end, in Dallas, in New York, in Minnesota, against Philadelphia.

The regular Bulls have tried to raise their game against tough opponents and cruise-controlled their way into trouble against lesser ones. That’s a flaw when a team is otherwise considered a legit contender, but it’s nearly fatal for one as ordinary as Chicago. That’s where the regular Bulls are right now, trying to claw up from ninth place in the East because they dawdled so for the past five months.

For all of Chicago’s deficiencies this season – an ill-fitting roster, a dearth of 3-point threats, limited athleticism and instability in the front office-coaching staff-locker room flow chart – the most egregious arguably has been a sense of swagger or entitlement where none was earned. Not here, not by this group, not now.

What Rondo said late Thursday night after his feisty defensive and 15-assist performance – “It’s all about the follow-up. It means nothing if you go out and lose Saturday. We want to continue to build the momentum. I was trying to tell guys we’ve got to start to have a playoff mentality. We can’t just turn it on once we make it or if we happen to luckily make it” – should have been said after game No. 35 or 55, not after No. 75.

Rookie Denzel Valentine admitted that the regular Bulls have not brought energy – the minimum fans should be able to expect – every night. “It kind of sucks,” he added, “because we lost some games we should have won. But it is what it is. We just have to win from now on.”

Bad news: The TNTBulls are done for the regular season, with no more scheduled appearances on the network.

Possible good news: The bright lights come back on in the postseason.

“Hopefully, if we get in these playoffs,” Rondo said, “we’ll be on TNT.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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