Playoffs! Playoffs! Playoffs?


Nov 25

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

This was after the Bulls 104-91 win over the Indiana Pacers on the last game of the home stand before the current Western Conference trip. I was still writing, and my old buddy from the Tribune, K.C. Johnson, was leaving.

It’s a change for me writing for the web site and a pleasant one, though I find myself taking longer. No more newspaper deadlines. K.C. had to send his story as soon as the game ended and then had just enough time to gather a few quick quotes and insert them in his earlier story. It’s the bane of newspaper writers, deadlines only getting tighter with growing circulation and production difficulties. Without such deadlines any more, I tend to spend more time around the locker room after the game, chatting with players and coaches and the occasional agent, the kind of contacts you need to get a more complete picture of the team.

So I was typing away a finger at a time (K.C. uses all 10 so goes more quickly, anyway), and as he passed by he said, “Could this team be better than we thought?”

The Bulls had just gone to 5-5, and now at 7-8 heading into San Antonio Wednesday before a three-day holiday break, they seem to be defying most expectations.

Where playoffs seemed like something Jim Mora would laugh about a few weeks ago, the way the Bulls have played this season with resolve and spirit despite not getting much from players counted upon like Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, and the way they’ve remained competitive with only bad losses in Boston and Portland and perhaps Los Angeles, it suggests this team could well make this season more interesting than anyone imagined.

It also helps that much of the Eastern Conference is in some form of rebuilding or retooling or retreat.

Boston? Terrific. Cavs? Playing great with LeBron the easy early favorite for MVP. Magic? Reasonably good and a certain division winner, though the Bulls scared the mouse pants off them down there earlier this season. Pistons? They’re getting Antonio McDyess back, as expected—wink, wink—though no one should be fooled by that. They recognized the end with this group is near and the deal for Allen Iverson is with the idea of being a major free agency player in 2010 as Rasheed Wallace’s contract expires after this season as well. They should be a playoff team, but Iverson changes everything they did because they were a man movement and ball movement team and now have a guy who drives the ball all the time. They’re quite vulnerable. I see the Hawks with Josh Smith’s return ahead of them now.

And then what? The Raptors are bickering about how to play with Jermaine O’Neal breaking down already. The 76ers have been mediocre despite adding Elton Brand as it’s changed their style as well and their successful running game from last season has slowed. The Nets have been a surprise because .500 is considered a surprise for them.

The Wizards already fired their coach. The Bobcats are a mess. The Heat is even smaller than the Bulls and with no defined game. The Bucks and Pacers are playing in fits and starts. The Knicks blew up their team to wait for LeBron.

Whereas I thought the Bulls preseason could be on the edge of the playoffs, probably ninth and perhaps eighth with some bad fortune for other teams, it’s difficult now to see more than four and perhaps a fifth team guaranteed the playoffs in the East. From being one of three or four teams fighting for eighth, the Bulls have played like they should be in the group with Philadelphia, Toronto, Miami, Milwaukee and New Jersey going for one of the last three spots.

Yes, it helps to have a star, and no matter how much most of us said Derrick Rose should be the No. 1 pick and he’d be a great player, no one saw this coming so fast.

Rose had 23 points and eight assists in that Pacers game, a dozen points in the third quarter when the Bulls took control. Rose has been, according to the statistics website, one of the league’s most productive players after halftime, seventh in scoring in the third quarter, when teams come out looking to control a game.

Rose trails just James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, John Salmons and Richard Jefferson. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Rose averages 6.5 points in the third quarter and 4.3 in the fourth, scoring almost 60 percent of his points after halftime.

Rose also is shooting 35 of 39 on free throws after halftime, almost 90 percent, truly remarkable for a rookie, especially one who came with the knock that he wasn’t a good shooter and had messed up some clutch free throws in the NCAA championships.

It’s hasn’t only been Rose, though it’s been the little men.

Larry Hughes hit that wonderful game winner in Salt Lake City Monday in another one of those 1998 Michael Jordan nightmares for Jazz fans. He is averaging 18.3 points the last three games on 46 percent shooting and eight of 16 on threes. We know Ben Gordon has his difficulties with defense and ball handling, but in those ratings, the Bulls point guard and shooting guard positions are ranked in the top five in the league.

Yes, and then there’s Rose, who took over down the stretch in both Western Conference wins. He had the last four field goals against the Warriors and five of the last seven. Against the Jazz, he scored the last four, including still another spectacular drive through the defense, before Hughes’ game winner off his miss.

Vinny Del Negro has adjusted and played small to emphasize the team’s strengths and he’s had the team playing hard despite some minor sniping from some players. Credit them as well for being able to put that aside, which the team often did well with Scott Skiles when they were that team greater than the sum of its parts we so admired. They seem to be trying, which is a good start.

And as K.C. left that night, I offered, “It helps to have a great player.”

Yes, folks, that was a real behind-the-scenes conversation. And who says we don’t have in-depth basketball sessions?

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: