AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The relief was palpable in the Bulls' locker room after Sunday night's 95-92 overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons.
Derrick Rose joked with his teammates as he rubbed lotion over his beaten up hands. Brian Scalabrine chided Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau as the happy coach rolled his luggage out of the locker room. Carlos Boozer sat in front of his locker, wrapped in ice, trying to wrap his mind around the last few games.
"We'll take the win anyway we can," Boozer said. "It was ugly tonight, but sometimes on the road you're going to win ugly and we did."
That is a common refrain heard from Boozer and his teammates the past few days. For the third game in a row, the team's offense stalled down the stretch. They couldn't find a basket when they needed one late in regulation, allowing the Pistons to force an overtime that almost cost the Bulls the game. For the second time in three games though, the Bulls managed to scrape out a win against a weaker opponent.
This is the new normal if you're Tom Thibodeau.
In the span of this three-game road trip, the Bulls have shown what their future holds for the next 8-10 weeks without Joakim Noah. Against lesser opponents, Rose and Boozer will lead the way, as they did once again Sunday night, combining for 54 points, 23 rebounds and 11 assists. The Bulls will play solid defense and try to manhandle teams on the boards. (The Bulls outrebounded the Pistons 55-39.) And they'll probably have just enough to win, especially if they get a boost from a bench player. On Sunday night, that role was played by Taj Gibson, who chipped in with 5 points and 9 rebounds in 30 minutes.
Against quality opponents, Rose and Boozer will still have to play well, but unless the rest of the team steps up to pull their weight, especially offensively, the Bulls won't have enough in the end to topple whomever they play. Especially if that team has a player the caliber of Rose or Boozer.
So can the Bulls succeed playing this kind of basketball for the next two months without Noah? And does the fact that they were able to win "ugly" over the past few days give them confidence moving forward?
Let's answer the second question first. Yes, even after an ugly looking win like Sunday's, the Bulls are gaining more confidence as the days roll by.
"I think we shot 39 percent or something like that," Rose said after Sunday's win. "That shows you that we're a decent team. Where we still shot the ball terrible. Our defense was all right and we still won."
Thibodeau agreed with his star. Despite the fact that he was still frustrated with the way his team failed to rebound on Detroit's final possession of regulation, Thibodeau was happy to see that his players found a way to win.
"I have no complaints," Thibodeau said. "I thought we played hard the whole game. And things weren't going our way, we weren't shooting well. But we just kept grinding. I thought our defense was good. I thought our rebounding was good ... I thought it was a good win for us. A very good win for us."
Clearly, Thibodeau and his players are looking at the glass half full. The broader question is if the Bulls can continue to win games once the schedule becomes a little tougher over the coming weeks without Noah. The answer will come in time, but there are some disturbing trends.
Yet again, the Bulls' offense fell asleep during the stretch. Why did it happen for the third game in a row?
"Lack of energy, I guess," Rose said. "And not concentrating. And not being focused. I think to win a game in the fourth quarter, everybody's got to be on the same page."
Whether it was being on the road or playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Bulls looked flustered in the final 12 minutes. They made just six shots and had no rhythm at all. When Rose and Boozer can't get it going, the Bulls don't have an answer. Thibodeau doesn't seem outwardly concerned about Rose and Boozer's recent struggles down the stretch, but he does see a problem that could haunt the Bulls if they don't get it fixed quickly.
"They're primary scorers," Thibodeau said of the Rose and Boozer. "And on every team, primary scorers have that responsibility. The thing that I'm concerned with right now a little bit, is I want our transition game to be better. In transition, we can get easy baskets for everybody. Not just Derrick and Carlos. It's run the floor hard, and get those easy layups."
The fluidity the Bulls played with at times earlier in the year has disappeared the past three games. Everything has been a struggle in the transition game, and Rose has appeared more frustrated than ever at times on the floor. The only silver lining for the Bulls is that Thibodeau's defensive schemes finally start to be taking hold. His team is playing with a consistent fire on the defensive end of the floor that wasn't always there at the beginning of the year.
"I think we're on a steady progression there," Boozer said. "I think Kurt Thomas helps us a great deal on the defensive side of the ball. And I think we're continually improving that area."
But is that improvement going to be enough to carry the Bulls against teams that have a lot more talent on their rosters than the Pistons and Wizards?
It depends on what side of the fence you're on when it comes to belief in the Bulls' future. For the time being, Rose is just happy that his team heads into the final week of December sitting nine games above .500.
"You can feel the vibe in the room," Rose said. "You can feel the tension and everything. Everybody's happy. There's not too much to say about it."
Well, there's not when you're winning. If the Bulls start losing, the relief they were feeling on Sunday night is going to turn into frustration very quickly.