SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Rip Hamilton has a pretty good sense of what it takes to win games.
The Chicago Bulls’ veteran sharpshooter has been in the NBA for 13 years and won a championship so he understands the grind of the season and he knows that teams have the ability to squeeze out wins when they're not supposed to.
Ever the realist, Hamilton also understands that the Bulls may not always have the talent to match up with certain teams some nights, especially as star point guard Derrick Rose continues rehabbing his knee, but that doesn't sway Hamilton from believing that the Bulls can still be successful. Hamilton knows that with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, the Bulls have a built-in advantage over most teams every time they hit the floor. That's because the they play the same way every night, regardless of their situation. They play hard and they play tough.
"It's very important because not every team plays hard," Hamilton said after his Bulls knocked off the Indiana Pacers 97-90 Friday night in their preseason finale at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. "And if you play hard you can win a lot of games just by playing hard. For us, that's our identity. We want to do stuff the right way, we want to play the game the right way and we want to play hard."
That was the case again Friday against the Pacers. The Bulls definitely still have kinks to work out as they get set for the regular season, but they have the knowledge and belief in themselves that even when things seem lost without Rose on the floor, they can still find a way to steal victories they aren't supposed to pull off.
"We got that part down," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "The playing hard part we got down. The great part about our team is we're going to defend, we're going to rebound, we're going to try to play inside out ... shooting's going to come and go, sometime you hit and sometimes you're not, but our defense, our rebounding, that will be there every night. We're always going to play hard. That's the mark of who we got in the locker room. Everybody in the locker room plays hard."
The Bulls still need to figure out who they're going to turn to late in games without Rose and they still need to figure out how the new Bench Mob is going to play together. But the belief that they are going to surprise some people this season is prevalent within the locker room. After recently being one of the favorites, this season the Bulls are thriving on playing the role of underdog.
"With us, we've got so many talented players you never know who it's going to be," Boozer said. "We got guys that can put it in the hole that are aggressive, that can score, but you never know who it's going to be. One day it could be (Luol Deng), it could be me, Rip, Nate (Robinson), Taj (Gibson), (Joakim Noah), Marco (Belinelli), Jimmy (Butler), Kirk (Hinrich) when he comes back. There's so many guys that can score, it makes it fun because ... not that we're all phenomenal, we're not like D. Rose, but we work with each other really well. I think we set screen really well, I think we pass very well, we cut very well, we help each other get open, and I think that's the mark of a good team when you try to help your teammates.
They know they aren't the same team without Rose and they would surely love to have him back on the floor, but they want to prove critics wrong. The Bulls want to prove they can with without Rose.
The talent on the floor and the way there isn't a true "go-to guy" without the former MVP remind Hamilton a little bit of his title team in Detroit. Solid, if not spectacular, day in and day out.
"It's exciting because you don't know who to guard," Hamilton said. "When you've got guys especially willing to make plays for each other, not just having the ball and saying, ‘This is my play, I'm going to score on my play and that's all I'm worried about.’ Because that happens a lot in the NBA. With us, it's like, all right, when you get the ball, make a play. Not just for yourself, but for your teammate."
That chemistry is going to take longer to form, but Hamilton believes that with the right mindset, and the focus on defense, the Bulls will be in good shape if and when Rose comes back.
"We got a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket," he continued. "With us, I'm just happy it's not a situation where guys are like, ‘Oh, I have to step up. I got to do this, I got to do that,’ and then guys look crazy out there. Like pushing down on the gas a little too hard and everybody sees it. Guys are just letting the game come to them. Thibs is doing a great job of putting everybody in position to make plays."
Of course, the key in the whole equation, aside from health, is that Thibodeau has got to get the most out of his players at all times. While he was definitely happier with their performance on Friday, he knows they still have a lot to improve on.
"The general approach and the attitude has been good," he said. "I think we've improved, but by no means are we anywhere near where we need to be so we have a lot of work to do. We have to come in every day, do the right things. If we do that we'll improve."
The improvement has already taken hold. As a group, the Bulls looked better Friday than they did in the beginning of the preseason. As long as the mentality stays the same and the Bulls focus on the little things, the things other teams don't always want to do, they know they'll win more than most.
"Sometimes you're going to make mistakes," Boozer said. "But sometimes playing hard, you make up for a mistake. Say you turn the ball over, you hustle down and they throw a blind pass. Just by you hustling sometimes you get a piece of it or maybe even get the steal. We got a lot of guys that do that. We make a mistake and then we bust our butts back to try to help out on defense or help out on offense, just help each other out. So I think the playing hard part is definitely going to win some games for us."