AL HAMNIK: Bulls seeing red at just the right time

2014-03-10T17:00:00Z 2014-03-15T19:48:27Z AL HAMNIK: Bulls seeing red at just the right timeAl Hamnik Times Columnist nwitimes.com
March 10, 2014 5:00 pm  • 

CHICAGO | Write this down, please.

Following a Dec. 19 double-figure loss at Oklahoma City, the Bulls were flat on their backs, staring up at a 9-16 record.

It was the low point of their season.

Chicago media and a lukewarm fandom were writing them off, suggesting they "tank it" to ensure a lottery pick.

TNT, the NBA's sugar daddy, actually dropped one its scheduled Bulls games.

Now fast forward to tonight.

The Bulls are 35-28, fighting for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, boast the league's second-best defense, and have won 11 of their last 14 games.

How do you like them now?

Of course, what the public thinks doesn't matter to coach Tom Thibodeau and his Bulls, nor should it. It's the mindset in their locker room that drives this team.

Sunday's comeback overtime win against the Miami Heat, sweet as it was, is merely a tuneup for what may lie ahead.

We'll know much more about these Bulls once their brutal homestand — Memphis, Miami, San Antonio, Sacramento and Houston — is over.

But they are fun to watch. C'mon. Admit it.

"That's a big one," Jimmy Butler said of Sunday's win. "A rival. Defending champs. All the great players that they have. You come into Chicago, it's not gonna be easy here.

"We want to send that message around the league."

Oh, not to worry. For any team, playing at the United Center is like sticking your head into a beehive. Sunday's nationally-televised game proved it once again.

The Bulls and Heat ended their regular-season series at 2-2 and it made for a long flight home.

"Right now, our mentality is to get on the plane, get back to Miami as quickly we can," coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. "None of us feel good about this game."

Making an opponent doubt itself is an advantage few teams have. Perhaps the Bulls have planted that seed with Miami. You can always hope.

Tonight, it's Merrillville grad Gregg Popovich and his Spurs, who have the NBA's highest winning percentage (.705) since 1997-98.

Taj Gibson believes the Bulls are pretty remarkable, too.

"You look at all the ups and downs we go through with the injuries," he said. "We get a new group of guys and they all seem to buy into what we're doing, buy into the whole team aspect, and we flourish every year."

D.J. Augustin, Mike Dunleavy, rookie Tony Snell and Jimmer Fredette are the new faces this season, all anxious to carry their weight.

"Every time we turn that next corner, we get injury-prone," Gibson said. "It's one thing we think about all the time: What if, what if we had all the guys healthy?"

Derrick Rose is just a memory, again, but there's no pity party with the Bulls. Joakim Noah looks at it as soldiers holding down the fort until their general returns.

"That's not what it's about — one guy — it's about team," Noah said. "But I can't wait for my homey to get back because we know we have another level when that boy comes back."

Put that thought on the back burner for now.

It's the Spurs tonight and then several weeks, possibly, of tip-toeing across that playoff mine field.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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