The sun is still low in the season, but the Bulls are already standing near the top of the league. As I write this the Bulls are 12-2, and even after a prolonged offseason, the team looks sharp. The lockout schedule may be tailor-made for the Bulls (young and deep) but the team looks like they never stopped playing from last season. And they’ve done it with basically the same team that brought them to the Conference finals.
The Bulls are playing stifling defense. They’re limiting opponents to 83.8 points per game, and teams are only shooting 41% from the field against them. Despite some early shooting difficulties, Rose looks better than he was last year. But what strikes me about the Bulls is how much they still play as a team. Every man on this team matters. Not only because they have talent up and down the bench, but because of how they gel. Every day someone new steps up. It’s obvious that this is a team that pushes each other to get better. Their evolution into an elite team streams from coach Thibs and his intense practices and tape sessions. But even more so, it comes from players and their trust and a bond between each other.
After John Lucas III torched the helpless Wizards for 25 points, he said in his postgame comments that he would do anything for his teammates. “I just want to have my teammates’ back,” said Lucas on a podcast with Sarah Spain & Nick Friedell. “This is one of the best teams I’ve ever been apart of. With the chemistry and the way everyone gets along. You usually have cliques, but this team, all 14 guys, hang together.”
That’s the type of attitude that’s pervasive throughout the locker room. Each player wants to play as hard as they can because they don’t want to let their teammates down. It’s a team mentality. Rose doesn’t scare teammates into playing well like maybe Kobe would or even Dywane Wade, they play well because they don’t want to let each other down.
After the Bulls beat the Raptors over the weekend, Taj Gibson told the Chicago Tribune this:
“No matter how many minutes you play, no matter how many touches you get, no one should play harder than you. No matter how many minutes you get, you’re supposed to lay it on the line no matter what.”
Attitude and chemistry will set this team apart from the Heat. This team knows that every player would go to war for one another.
They walk into every game knowing that they do it as a team. It’s a rare for a team to be this close at the professional level, and even rarer considering it’s carried into another season.
Coach Thibodeau has his players believing in his system and believing in each other, and with Rose hobbled by a nagging toe, we’ll see how far this team can go.
Basketball is a sport of grace. Its appeal is a heated mixture of athleticism, speed and precision that reduces down into a team trying to find that natural symmetry of unison and brilliance.
Championship teams dig themselves into that niche. They aspire to be great together, and that aspiration translates to unselfish play, and more often than not, beautiful basketball.
The Bulls are striving to play at that level. To not only beat opponents but play past their respective talents and play as something greater than their individual parts.
And the Bulls keep pushing to that point.
Last night the Bulls scored 26 points in the first half. They scored 15 in the first quarter and they followed that up with 11 points in the second. It was ugly. The Bulls were flat and distracted. They didn’t play with any heart and their defense was porous. Again, it was ugly.
But despite all that, the Bulls won. It was U-G-L-Y, but the team showed something in that victory. They showed they could overcome adversity, they showed they could still push forward and keep drudging up that steep, gravel slope.
While it was a team victory, three individuals really won the game: Rose, Deng and Asik.
Rose was Rose. Taking lots of shots, hitting the big ones, pushing the ball up the floor, smoking guys on blow bys, creating the offense and somehow getting the win.
Deng was underrated again. Doing everything. Leading the break. Driving to the hoop. Being long. Ditching his blackhawk for the close crop we usually see, and hitting big shots.
Omer was big. He continues to grow into a beardless Viking. His shot blocking abilities and hustle don’t always translate to the boxscore, but I think he was the player of the game. Well, maybe tied with Rose.
The game was sloppy and disheartening at points, but it was more than satisfying to get a victory. And while it wasn’t that beautiful, championship style of play that everyone expects from the team, it was the kind of victory that will help get them there.
Another disco ball is poised to smash into the New Year, and winter will soon stand alone as the holidays melt away. It’s equally depressing and exciting, but there’s still time to get drunk and reflect on everything that’s swirled around the sports world this year.
And so, drunk, I reflect: Where was I when the NBA tipped off the playoffs with Osama’s head? How did I feel when Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish was confirmed? Do I remember watching Shrek make that flawless bicycle kick against Manchester City? Did Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit really kill Amy Winehouse? Was the NBA lockout responsible for lowering America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+? Was Einstein tebowing in the afterlife after scientists found out that things can actually move faster than the speed of light? Did Rahm Emanuel really celebrate his inauguration by pranking Carlos Zambrano into thinking that the Snuggie had replaced the Cubs usual uniforms?
The year was littered with loads of crap like that (and way too many stories of abuse), but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few gems out there too.
My favorite moment of the year was one that I didn’t even see live, but I still remember it more clearly than any epic tennis match, Bears loss, or ESPN embarrassment.
I was in a foreign country dealing with poor satellite signals, spotty electricity, and supposedly toxic beer. I was living off chai tea and cheap dumplings, and playing basketball on a worn court that was slick with sand and surrounded by monkeys and dirty, feral dogs. I was alone, and I quickly found that the best way to meet people was through hoops and pick-up games.
Although English was more random than consistent, hoops was still a way to make a connection, and I spent the summer meeting players and hoops fans from different parts of the globe.
It was on the court that I learned that the Mavericks and Heat series was being broadcast live in the predawn hours of the morning.
So early one morning, when the parrots where still migrating and the rainy season was still a few weeks off, a collection of drunks, ballers and NBA lovers found their way to my hotel.
Although my room was large, its sparse decorations made it seem more like a painted cave. A frayed tapestry was one of the few fineries in the place, and a cardboard box held the small television that all of us crowded around. The room might have been somewhat dank, but that morning it was alive with cheers, bottles and playoff basketball.
It was around halftime when the room went quiet though. It was a noticeable and sudden change, but it wasn’t the game that muzzled the noise, or even an upset neighbor, but Derrick Rose’s MVP speech. The clip of his speech held everyone’s attention, and it even seemed to sober a few people up.
The speech was everything you’d want to hear from a superstar player. He was humble, courteous, and evocative. It was a simple and beautiful speech, and it capped a great season from Rose.
So despite nationalities and varying proficiencies in English, Rose’s achievement was something that everyone stopped to appreciate. That, and a Heat loss.
Notice the bottom one on the right. By day Friedell is the beat writer for the Bulls, but at night he’s just another groupie trying to get backstage in South Beach. We don’t want to presume to tell a man how to get his rocks off, but seriously Friedell? Seriously?
The NBA’s kooky, condensed schedule is apparently too much for the Mob, so Vegas has decided to forego their over/under win totals for this season (bleh). So we’re going to use Bill Simmon’s brilliant idea and predict the exact win totals of every NBA team. This wasn’t easy. A huge trade (Howard or Nash or anyone on Houston or Golden State or Atlanta) or an injury could alter everything very quickly. Especially an injury (imagine if Carmelo Anthony was out for two months). And no one really knows how teams will play three straight games in a row. BUT after pouring over transactions, trades and rosters we’ve finally come up with some numbers we feel comfortable with. Here’s our NBA predictions:
Eastern Conference Finals: Bulls over Miami
Western Conference Finals: Thunder over Grizzlies
Champs: Bulls over the Thunder in seven (The Bulls are 11 deep espn. Wake up.)
The NBA is stacked with talent, and we’re here to sift through it and separate the meek from the astronauts, the stiffs from the double O’s, and the haters from the ballers. This is almost an impossible task this season, but we promise to try to be as objective as possible and we’ll try not to drown in hyperbole.
Now let’s clarify, we’re talking about the 2K12 season. That doesn’t mean last year’s playoffs, or the end of last year’s regular season.. we mean 2K12 with a bullet, and the talent pool is even deeper than it was last year.
Here’s who we think are going to be the NBA’s best at the end of the regular season:
10. John Wall. Going out on a limb, but he’s going to make the leap this year, and we’re slightly ranking him in front of Russell Westbrook, one of our favorite players. Wall has all the tools to be a leader in assists. His team is stacked with talent, and that should lead to a lot of exciting, high scoring games. He was filthy in lockout ball. Filthy. He’s already had his year of jitters, health issues, and he doesn’t have the spotlight on him to start the season. What’s that translate to: Wall will become the leader of this team and he’ll do by dancing all over the league.
9. Kobe Bryant. Kobe has had a tough month: a potential pairing with Chris Paul was snubbed out by a chain smoking David Stern, Lamar Odom filed for divorce, his wife filed for divorce, he’s team was absolutely embarrassed by the Clippers in their first preseason meeting, and during that game he was stuffed so hard that he tore one of his wrist ligaments. But Kobe is still chasing a sixth title. He might have the deck stacked against him this season (Clippers, Thunder) but if anyone has the will to over come the type of adversity he’s gone through, then it’d be him. But some of the most bitter men on the planet are elderly, and Kobe is already sliding down that muddy slope.
8. Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk makes rainbows look cool. Like we’re high and sobbing uncontrollably (double rainbow style). Dirk is going to kill it again this year. He was unquestionably the best player in the playoffs last year, but I think a condensed schedule hurts him, as does the loss of Chandler. We love Dirk but the NBA guard is changing and he’s at the tail end of his great career. Granted, he’s one of the greatest players at his position, and definitely someone we’d love to get drunk with, but let’s face it, he’s old.
7. Blake Griffin. Doesn’t matter that Bill Simmons is trying to put a leash on him, so he can parade him around in his Grantland tote, no one is even close to competing at the four spot. Dirk is on the wrong side of 30 and Griffin dunks over cars. If this list was based on talent he’d be in the top three. We think his pairing with Chris Paul will permanently put him in the MVP discussion for the rest of decade, but I still think Paul will be slightly better this year. Experience has to be worth something.
6. Chris Paul. We can easily see him being the best player in L.A., but he’s still an injury risk. He’s easily one of the best distributors in the league, and he has the will and talent around him to be the best. We love Paul’s game. We love the trade to the Clippers, and we love how old he’ll make the Lakers look. He should be in the MVP discussion this year and the next, but he’s still one injury away from becoming Brandon Roy’s corpse.
5. Dwyane Wade. It’s debatable who’s the best on the Heat. Wade is a beast. He’s mentally tough. He still has the athletic ability to almost match James, but injuries have been nipping at his game for years. In the regular season, I still think James reigns supreme, but the playoffs are different. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic between Wade and James plays out in another tough playoff series. The season’s expectations are championship or bust again, and failure this season might implode this team. So will Lebron falter again when the clock is ticking down? Will Wade’s frustration flash and get the best of him or will he step up and lead his team? Or will the both of them try too hard and cancel each other out? Regardless, with Kobe already feeling the injury bug, Wade’s the best shooting guard in the league.
4. Dwight Howard. He’s the strongest player in the league. He’s possibly more athletic than Lebron, and he can score at will. Barring injury, he should be the defensive player of the year for as long as he wants it. In all honesty, he should have been last year’s MVP. BUT…. he doesn’t have Rose’s, Bryant’s, or Wade’s killer instinct. He’ll be surrounded by trade speculation all year, and his team has done nothing to improve itself. His motivation just doesn’t seem to be there, at least in his current uniform. He’s one of the most gifted NBA players ever, but how far can you take that without the will or heart to be the best?
3. Lebron James. Lebron’s the most talented player in the league. He’s finally come to terms that he’s not a villain, and he’s finally owned up to his mistakes with the decision. His maturity is starting to evolve, and it might be that last inch he needed to finally take that step that everyone’s been waiting for. But it seems that this year the Heat will experiment with him and stick him at the four spot. We haven’t seen much in the post from Lebron, but as the Heat’s second tallest player it seems like he’ll have to endure more punishment down low. This is also his most important season as a professional. The pressure on the Heat to win a championship is immense, and Lebron’s inability to step up under pressure has been the only chick in his armor. I’d really like to see Lebron succeed and overcome some of the adversity he’s faced over the last year, but that mountain is still high, even for the league’s most talented talent.
2. Derrick Rose. After becoming the youngest MVP in league history, Rose was showered with insults, the stat geeks dissected and picked apart his game with equations and percentages, and worst of all, his team lost to the Heat. ESPN, in all their wisdom, ranked him as the eighth best player in the league, and people questioned whether he was even the best player at his position. But here’s what we know of Rose: In each of his three seasons in the league he’s improved exponentially, his speed and athleticism have never been seen in someone his size, and his will to win is only matched by other legends of the game. The Bulls have the look and confidence to be the leagues best, and Rose should be even more motivated to prove his MVP win wasn’t a fluke.
1. Kevin Durant. In a the grey and desolate lockout dimension, Durant turned the basketball world upside down, and somehow found a way to spin the court on his fingertips. He travelled the country and almost singlehandedly reminded everyone that basketball can be a beautiful. But ever since the league woke up and decided to play, we haven’t heard anything from one of the league’s best. In nautical terms, this would be the quiet before the storm. The Thunder have the most talented starting five in the league (Perkins, Ibaka, Durant, Harden, Russell), and the best and the brightest on that squad is still unquestionably Durant (which is insane because they could have three top 15 players on their roster). I’d love to see the Bulls play the Thunder in the Finals, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the we see Durant (or Rose or Lebron) hit the title winner.
Sometimes life throws you a wink. It’s form may not always dance in front of us, but who can deny the smile a hot cup of Irish coffee brings on a quiet snowy day? Or the sense of warmth a swig of beer can bury in the belly? It’s truly the small things in life that seem to bamboozle the sad and dull. So with that said, I ask, is it possible to hate Gheorghe Muresan?