The Chicago Bulls are doing it again. They're mining wins out of a roster that doesn't scare many with on-paper talent. They're sailing up the East standings by proving to be just a little bit better than the rest of their sorry conference, even if it takes an overtime session or three. They're achieving in the face of desolate circumstances when many thought they'd be better served to tank. Essentially, they're doing what a Tom Thibodeau team always does.
The Bulls are 8-2 in their last 10 games (6-2 without Luol Deng), a mark that ties them with powerhouses in Indiana, San Antonio and Lob City for the hottest team in professional basketball. It has the Bulls up to the precious No. 6 seed in the East, ie: the lowest seed available that comes with the hope of winning a first round series. The Bulls are not exactly cruising past their opponents -- they still have a point differential of 0.1 on the season -- but they've, ahem, had
more than just enough to win with during a cupcake-filled stretch on the schedule.
And don't discount the schedule. Right now, the Bulls have played the easiest schedule in the NBA by far, according to Basketball Reference. The only team close would be the Miami Heat, who, of course, benefit from not having to play themselves. This particular patch of the schedule might be the easiest of the entire campaign, with the eight teams the Bulls have defeated on their current streak combining to be 123-206 on the season. Even that is bit misleading because the Suns (the best team on the schedule during this stretch at 23-17) were playing without their best player, Eric Bledsoe.
But even if the Bulls are barely defeating bad teams, it's still sweet to see them winning. The defense is very much still carrying the day, allowing only 94.2 points per 100 possessions over the last 10. That's three points better than the Bulls overall season mark, which ranks them second in the NBA behind Indiana. What's funny is that the Bulls defense over the last 10 games is still 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse than Indiana's is on the entire season, which just goes to show how truly stingy the Pacers have been all year long.
On the other side of the ball, the Bulls are scorching, at least by their own pathetic standards. Over the last 10 games, the offense is averaging 101.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would put them at No. 21 in the league if it were the case over the full season. As it is, the Bulls have used this offensive surge to improve from the league's second worst offense to the league's third worst offense. Go Bulls.
It's been a true team effort over the last 10 games, but two players stand out: Joakim Noah and D.J. Augustin. Noah, in particular, is playing out of his mind right now. Thibodeau agrees:
Thibodeau said this is best stretch of Noah's career.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 20, 2014
Noah really is playing great. He's coming off a 17-21-6 game against the Lakers, which comes on the back of a 21-point, 16-rebound, four-block effort against Spencer Hawes and the 76ers. He also posted a 26-19-6 game during this stretch in that triple overtime against the Magic.
Over the last 10 games, Noah is averaging 14.9 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists with 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals game on 47.2% shooting. Get loose.
Noah's overall numbers on the season are very good now, putting him in line to make his second straight All-Star team. He's the only player in the NBA averaging at least 11.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals, according to Basketball Reference. It speaks to just how diverse and unique Noah's game really is.
Augustin is balling, too. Who would have thought a player cut by the Raptors this season would be so effective? D.J. just dropped 27 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three-point range on the Lakers, which was simply a continuation of his strong play lately. Over the last 10 games, Augustin is averaging 14.6 points, 6.3 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game on 42.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.4 percent shooting from three. He's hit some clutch shots and posted some shockingly good lines lately, like hanging 20 and 12 on the Bobcats on January 11 and posting 19 points, nine assists and zero turnovers in the triple overtime win against Orlando.
In the subject of fairness, we'll point out that Jimmy Butler (battling a quad injury and turf toe) is struggling a bit lately. Over this stretch he's averaging 12.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting just shooting 32.7 percent from the field and 17.9 percent from three. He's averaging 41.2 minutes per game over the last 10.
So yes: it's cool the Bulls are winning, but it doesn't discount my original criticism of Thibodeau from last week, which is that he consistently fails to see the big picture. Here's hoping Noah going 36.5 minutes per night over this stretch doesn't hurt him going forward. Same can obviously be said for Jimmy.
This also probably isn't going to last. During this stretch, seven of the 10 games have been at home. The schedule is about to get a lot tougher in February, with a six-game road trip out West looming as well as matchups at the end of the month against the Heat, Warriors and Nuggets. The Bulls have played just 12 of their 40 games this season against the Western Conference. They're 14-8 against teams below .500 and 6-12 against teams above .500.
What's important is that No. 6 seed, or a spot even higher. Toronto is falling back down to Earth lately, losing three of four against an easy slate, so maybe continuing this climb up the East standings isn't impossible for our Bulls. There's no point in doubting them when they always prove us wrong. It's the gift and the curse of a Tom Thibodeau team, and there's nothing the Bulls can do but ride it out and see what happens.