With only three games remaining, the Bulls are sitting in the proverbial catbird seat, only one game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the NBA and a single win away from reaching the 60-win plateau.
It feels so long ago that the Bulls needed to win their last game of the season to make the playoffs and finish with a 41-41 record.
The contrast between the two teams is remarkable, but not unfathomable:
- The Bulls added Carlos Boozer, who showed just how valuable he can be on Friday night against Cleveland by putting up 24 points and 11 rebounds and being the post threat that Chicago has lacked since sending Elton Brand to the Los Angeles Clippers a decade ago.
- Chicago added Tom Thibodeau, who last week broke the franchise record for most wins by a first-year head coach. Not to take anything away from Vinnie Del Negro, who didn't have nearly as much talent to work with, but it's clear that the Bulls strategy and execution has grown by leaps and bounds this year. Thibodeau is the odds-on favorite to win the NBA Coach of the Year award.
- The bench mob has been a huge part of the Bulls' success, and according to the statistics, is the best defensive five in the league, starting or otherwise. The additions of Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Kurt Thomas have each turned out to be more than Chicago could have hoped for, with each filling a specific role and performing at or above expectations. Gar Forman will likely receive votes for executive of the year, although it is hard to know how much he, John Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf did separate of one another. This is why many call the three "Gar Paxdorf" and discuss the three as though they were one.
- And of course, don't forget the Bulls' main cogs of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, who have both elevated their games to new levels, leading this team from playoff also-ran to plucky up-and-comer to legitimate title contender. What Rose has done to work on his game -- improving his outside shot over the summer, getting and making free throws, becoming an elite closer -- has been nothing short of astounding and a testament to his hard work. Likewise Deng, who hasn't had the same stratospheric rise as Rose, has been the team's steadying influence, subjugating his game at times to do whatever it takes to win, and the rest of the team has fallen behind him in lockstep.
When you add up all the parts, maybe it isn't so hard to believe that this team is on course for a twenty win improvement from only a season ago.
Although the Bulls' have already claimed the East's top seed, don't expect Thibodeau to take his foot off the gas just yet. Yes, the Bulls have a chance to overtake the Spurs to claim homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, but moreover it isn't Thibs' style to take his foot off the gas. No doubt he will manage a few players' minutes more closely than usual, but make no mistake: every time his team takes the floor he expects them to win.
The Orlando Magic are locked into the four seed in the East, and will be playing without MVP candidate Dwight Howard, who received a one game suspension after receiving his 18th technical foul of the season on Wednesday night. Howard was whistled for taking more than ten seconds to shoot a free throw, and responded by rolling the ball across the court away from the officials.
After losing by almost 30 points in their first matchup against the Magic, the Bulls have won two straight including their first win in Orlando since 2007. Although a lot has to happen to make it a reality, these two teams could very well face each other in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Magic To Watch For
With Howard out, the Magic will go small, possibly using undersized forward Brandon Bass as a center. The Bulls will have a huge size advantage in the paint, but they have struggled when teams have gone small against them this year. Gilbert Arenas had his finest game as a Magic on Friday night, scoring 25 points on 9-14 shooting as the Magic secured their 50th win for the fourth consecutive season. Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson complete a formidable guard rotation that is capable of lighting it up from beyond the arc on any given night.
Bulls To Watch For
Coincidence or not, Omer Asik had his finest game as an NBA player against the Magic on March 7, limiting the incomparable Howard to 20 points and 10 rebounds while putting up 13 boards of his own. The Bulls will extend the bench once again, giving players like Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and Taj Gibson a chance to get hot while Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah take the foot off the gas ever-so-slightly. Last but not least, it seems Carlos Boozer is peaking at just the right time for the Bulls, defending well, making spectacular passes and finishing over his defender much more effectively than when he was slumping only a month ago.
It won't be the same without Dwight Howard out there for the Magic, but Chicago can do its part to put the pressure on the Spurs to keep winning and send a message to the Magic, whom they will likely face in the second round of the playoffs.
Tip-off at the Amway Center in Orlando is at high noon CDT; it will be nationally televised on ABC.