The Chicago Bulls are charging through the NBA. And yet, they’re still hovering in the middle of the Eastern Conference, and can be unconvincing against weaker clubs. For example, they gifted the Charlotte Bobcats a win on new year’s eve, only narrowly beat the Orlando Magic a couple of days later, and then struggled with the feeble Cleveland Cavaliers. The other problem is that their leader and best player, Derick Rose, is still rehabbing his injured knee. Kirk Heinrich may wear stylish goggles, but he’s not quite the head turner Rose is.
So as you might expect, without Rose in the line-up, Chicago doesn’t seem to scare teams the way they should, especially those plucky enough to stare them down. After all, their makeshift backcourt is full of journeyed veterans, while big men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are often seen to undermine the group as much as impact it—one being too soft, the other sometimes going in too hard.
But that’s all just perception, not reality. When both Noah and Boozer play with determination, like in their recent showing against the reigning champs, the Miami Heat, the results can be devastating. In particular, Chicago’s front court, including Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, can rebound with ferocity. When facing a poor rebounding team like Miami, that’s a tasty recipe on par with the city’s deep dish pizza. In their recent meeting, the Bulls out-swept the Heat on the glass 48-28 (with a whopping 19-4 on the offensive end). And you guessed it, Noah and Boozer led with 12 boards apiece.
What I really like about their combined effort against the Heat, is the sharing of responsibility. They split their rebounding tally evenly on the offensive and defensive ends, and also shot the ball with efficiency (Boozer was 12 of 17 for 27 points, Noah 5 of 11 for 13 points). The Bulls can compete with anyone in the East when their bigs see red like this—even without their spectacular playmaker, Rose. Boozer and Noah realize this, which is why seeing them stand-up to LeBron James and Co. is exciting.
Noah was said to be fighting through a flu before the game, and yet he was relentless in attack. You have to hand it to the Bulls’ center, who may irritate opponents with his self-proclaimed energy—pogoing, reaching and clawing at the play whenever he can. He may not be as reflective or eloquent as his father, tennis great Yannick Noah, but he’s equally instinctive, and willing to scrap for mere inches.
While the Heat like to skip behind the defense and toss up lobs, or isolate James, or Dwayne Wade—constantly seeking highlight-reel dunks—the Bulls tend to tough it out in the paint. They set picks, find spaces, and make clever bounce passes to players moving to the hoop. They chase up missed shots, and challenge the interior. In this recent defeat of their relatively new rival, the Bulls outscored Miami inside 46-34. Some of these differentials may seem trivial in January. But when you consider they’re doing all this without their catalyst, Rose, a player who makes his living at the rim, then the sky might just be the limit for these Bulls.
No they can’t fly—not without Rose. But they’ll hang around, and in a long NBA season, that can be equally valuable for a championship run.