For fans of the Chicago Bulls, few things are scarier than their favorite NBA team’s annual mid-November "circus trip." (OK, clowns are pretty scary. People who don’t blink, too. What’s up with that?) So called because the Bulls — and Blackhawks, for that matter — have to exeunt the United Center to make way for the Ringling Brothers Circus, it’s a road trip that has taken on near-mythic proportions. And not in a good way.
Historically, the Bulls have struggled on the circus trip and, like any good (easy?) story, this one tends to snowball every year to become a bigger and bigger source of anxiety for the team. (You know, like clowns. Presumably.) But, sitting atop the Central Division with a 5-3 record, the 2010-11 Bulls don’t have to buy a ticket to this horror show. Here are our Top Five survival tips for getting through the trip and coming home with some confidence.
1. Don’t Believe The Fright
Based on the high anxiety emanating from many fans and pundits, you might think the Bulls have gone 0-7 on every circus trip since Michael Jordan left the team. Not so. In fact, within the last five years, the team has twice returned to the United Center with a respectable record.
In 2008-09, the trip went from Nov. 18 through 30 and they came back 3-4. And that was a team that included in its lineup three familiar names: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. And, as recently as 2005-06, the Bulls returned to the UC with a 3-3 circus trip record.
Granted, the "one game at a time" mantra is classic sports cliché. But there’s really no other way to approach a crazy voyage like this and, as long as the guys exercise some restraint with their recreational time, they should be able bring considerable energy to every game. It’s probably not realistic to expect the Bulls to dominate this trip, but returning the UC with their heads held high is hardly an impossibility.
2. Beat The Beatable
"Beat the teams you should beat." Another classic sports cliché, but it’s a viable circus trip survival skill as well. The Bulls can start tonight by taking care of the Houston Rockets. As of this writing, this member of the Texas Triangle is 3-6 with an awful defensive rating. They’re also missing Yao Ming, Aaron Brooks and, possibly, Chase Budinger. (All to sprained ankles — what are the odds?)
Beyond that, the Nov. 24 matchup with the Phoenix Suns should be considered winnable. Forward Amare Stoudemire is now a member of the New York Knicks, and Noah should dominate the boards against this poor-rebounding team. The circus trip finale against the Sacramento Kings also looks good for the Bulls. The Kings have suffered from, to use a technical term, "early season chaos" and, like the Rockets, currently sit at 3-6.
So take those three games and the Bulls can come home, if not winners, at least survivors. Pull out a win against one of the tougher opponents — the San Antonio Spurs (Nov. 17), Dallas Mavericks (Nov. 19), Los Angeles Lakers (Nov. 23) and Denver Nuggets (Nov. 26) — and you’ve got a big success story.
3. Kover For Korver
As this story went to press (figuratively speaking), shooting guard Kyle Korver was questionable for the Bulls game against the Rockets. And, even if he is able to log some playing time, Kyle could be limited somewhat by a knee injury that he says he suffered when he ran into John Wall of the Washington Wizards on Nov. 13.
That means the team’s bench depth will be tested — not only by Korver’s potential injury, but also by the general nature of a long, exhausting road trip. Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans will be key in maintaining the Bulls’ perimeter shooting game with or without Korver. (Update: Korver looked fine against the Houston Rockets but bench depth will still be critical.) Center Omer Asik will also need to step up to avoid overtaxing Joakim Noah, who could burn out quickly on a trip like this.
4. Step Up, Big Guys
Speaking of Noah, he’ll need to prove his leadership. So will DRose and Luol Deng. Until Carlos Boozer returns, these are the three guys who will have to set and maintain the excellent game pacing the Bulls have displayed so far this season. The good news is Derrick has learned a thing or two about long-distance travel this year. He told reporters yesterday:
Last year killed me. [But] this trip should be nothing, knowing that I went overseas for a month and a half [this summer]. Just being away from home it should be easy.
Team chemistry, in any sport, is hard to quantify. But a trip like this can make or break it. The big guys need to step up and hold everyone together to keep the next seven games from tripping up a Bulls team that has established some nice, early-season momentum.
5. Follow The 'T' Philosophy
From the very moment of his arrival, head coach Tom Thibodeau has emphasized defense. And succeeding on this season’s circus trip could very well come down to abiding by Coach T’s defensive principles and slowing down opposing teams on their respective home courts to allow just enough offense to pull out some victories.
In particular, they’ve got to stay out of foul trouble. One struggle for the team early on has been not getting to the line enough while letting other teams do so far too often.
Another defensive key will be forcing turnovers. It’s something the Bulls did in spectacular fashion when blowing out the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 11. If they can play such high-pressure defense on this road trip while following Thibodeau’s philosophy of running off those turnovers, good times should lay ahead.