When Derrick Rose went down with yet another major knee injury on Nov. 22, I embraced the tank.
When the Bulls lost a hideous game at home on New Year's Eve to the Raptors, I embraced the tank. Hell, I remember being at the bar that night, laughing heartily as the Bulls took a dump during yet another miserable fourth quarter.
And when I woke up in the middle of the night on Jan. 6 to texts that Luol Deng had been traded for what amounted to cap relief and some draft picks that may or may not amount to nothing, I thought my #TankDreams were going to come true.
But then the Bulls began to win games, although I was till kind of hoping for losses. Even though they were winning, many of the games were unbearable to watch because of the slow, drag-it-out pace they were played. However, thanks to an elite defense, the Bulls managed to win despite an offense that made me want to fall asleep. It seems over the past few years, the Bulls have specialized in pulling games out of their arses because of that defense.
By the time January was over, the Bulls had turned a 12-18 record into a much more respectable 23-22 record. But many of the wins came against cupcakes, and looking at the more difficult road ahead, I figured the losses would began to pile up again. I worried about the Bulls sneaking into the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, only to get embarrassed by the Pacers or Heat in the first round.
At the start of February, it looked like I was going to be proven correct. The Bulls failed to reach 80 points in two straight road losses, with the second being the infamous "Joakim Noah 'Fuck You, Fuck You and Fuck You' Game" in Sacramento:
But since that game, the Bulls have gone 9-2. And dare I say it, they're actually fun to watch again.
In that span, seven of the wins have come against current playoff teams. Even if we throw out two wins against the Hawks, who are currently a shell of themselves, the Bulls have come up with some extremely impressive victories of late.
One could argue the last two wins have been their most impressive of the year, perhaps outside of their shellacking of the Heat in early December and the beat down of the Pacers when Rose was still around. The win over the Warriors at the UC on Wednesday was a pure dismantling, with the Bulls' defense, led by Kirk Hinrich, just draining the soul out of Stephen Curry and his teammates.
And Friday night in Dallas, the Bulls could have easily packed up their bags on the road after going down by 16 early in the second quarter. But instead, the Bulls fought back with their typical resiliency, and proceeded to once again drain another helpless opponent of their precious soul with a lockdown defensive effort in the fourth quarter.
After a semi-shaky start to the year, the Bulls' defense has kicked into high gear. On the season, their defensive rating stands at 97.7, which ranks second only to the stingy Pacers. Over the last 11 games, the defense has been even better, giving up a paltry 95.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com's stats page. The Pacers are still better over that time period...but just barely.
I could go on and on about the Bulls' defensive prowess, but I'd rather talk about something else. And that's the offense, which is one of the reasons I'm actually really enjoying games again. I know some take deep pleasure in simply watching the Bulls demoralize other squads with their defense, and while it's cool, it's rough when the offense is executing like chickens running around with their heads cut off.
The debacle in Miami last weekend aside, the Bulls' offense has actually been pretty darn good of late, which makes for a much more enjoyable entertainment experience. I mean, who doesn't get a chuckle out of this?:
The Bulls have reached 100 points in three straight games for the first time since March 2012, and it's four of five games when you go back to the 117-89 thrashing of the Nuggets. The Bulls have an offensive rating of 103.6 in the last 11 games, per NBA.com's stats page, and they're shooting 45.6 percent overall and 37.9 percent overall in that span. The effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage marks during that stretch would both rank in the top half of the NBA. And just think how much better those numbers would look if you took out the disaster in Miami.
There's plenty of credit to go around for the improved offense. Noah has been simply phenomenal with his ability to run the offense from the high post, and he's incredibly in the top 30 of the league in total assists this year. AS A CENTER! Noah's scoring has also gotten better as the year has gone on, and it seems like he has been knocking down his "Tornado" with more regularity. I remember the dude knocking down a semi-contested 20-footer the other day. Crazy.
I talked about Taj Gibson yesterday as he makes a case for Sixth Man of the Year, and he was brilliant again in the win over the Mavs. Gibson reached 20 points for the 10th time this season after doing it just five times in his first four years.
Jimmy Butler has been getting back into a groove after a disastrous stretch earlier in the year, mostly ditching three-pointers and doing what he does best, being more aggressive attacking the basket. On the other wing, Mike Dunleavy has been pretty steady most of the year after fans wanted to kill him for his rough start.
And then there's Hinrich, whom I have crapped on pretty hard the past two seasons. But, and it pains me to say it, the man deserves a boatload of credit right now. Kirk has probably been playing some of his best ball in years over the last few weeks, both offensively and defensively. Hinrich's defensive effort against Curry was a masterpiece, but what I like seeing more is him actually knocking down open jumpers. Watching Hinrich brick open J after open J earlier in the year was truly nauseating, but now that he doesn't look like the worst starting point guard in the league, the Bulls' offense functions so much better.
In February, Hinrich averaged 11.1 points while shooting 46.3 percent and 38.5 percent from the field. He's now not just performing at a high level on national TV, but on a far more consistent basis. The gritty one went 7-of-8 against the Mavs, and he also went 8-of-11 in a big win over the Raptors a a few weeks ago. Not to mention a few other really stellar games. What the what?
I'm not done. Over the last 11 games, Hinrich has the best net rating on the team, just edging out Butler. Hinrich's play is almost convincing me to want him back next year, although I'm sure I'll be regretting that when he starts next year shooting 35 percent again over the first few months.
Now, we all know where this season likely ends. Barring serious injuries, I fully expect the Bulls to win a first-round series. But the end of the line will likely come again in the second round against either the Heat or Pacers. As good as the Bulls look now, they simply can't match up with those teams over a seven-game series unless one of THEM suffers a serious injury. Anything is possible, and I guess there's always that slim, slim chance Rose comes back for a playoff push, but I'm not counting on it.
However, just because the Bulls may not be legit title contenders, that doesn't mean we can't have fun during this run. Jagaloons like The Score's Dan Bernstein will bash fans for having the gall to enjoy this team and say nothing matters if there's no rally in Grant Park at the end of the year, but don't listen to that lazy nonsense. As Bernstein's colleague Matt Spiegel often counters, sports are entertainment, and the Bulls are entertaining as hell right now.
Gibson basically summed it all up after Friday's win:
Taj Gibson on Bulls Radio postgame: "I'm having fun playing basketball." Whole team looks like they are right now.— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) March 1, 2014
Hell, even Thibs is laughing and having a good time these days:
So let us buckle up and enjoy the rest of this ride. The Bulls are freaking tied for the No. 3 seed right now. NUTS! Also, it's Jimmer Time.