DEERFIELD, Ill. -- As far as litmus tests go, the Chicago Bulls are satisfied with what their current six-game homestand has revealed.
An imposing challenge when it began, the Bulls lost to Memphis and San Antonio, but redeemed themselves with quality victories over the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets. Saturday’s victory over the Sacramento Kings shouldn’t be anything to celebrate, but that is a squad that gives the Bulls matchup issues.
Now comes the finale on Monday when the Oklahoma City Thunder rolls to town.
“I like it,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said about the schedule’s current challenges. “It tests you in a lot of ways, lets you know where you are. We have to keep our concentration, focus on our improvement and play for 48 minutes against these teams. If you let your guard down at all, two or three bad minutes, they can score a ton of points on you.”
With 16 games remaining, the Bulls have the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference at 37-29. Only the Toronto Rapotrs (37-28), the Miami Heat (44-19) and the Indiana Pacers (49-17) are in front of them.
The Bulls didn’t figure to be on the cusp of potentially having home-court advantage in a first-round playoff matchup. The reality was that when Derrick Rose went down in November with another knee injury and Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January, the playoffs still seemed like a possibility in a watered-down conference, but not a top four spot.
There are plenty of reasons why the Bulls are sitting fourth, from coaching to tenacious defense to a willingness to pound the boards. But the biggest reason the team hasn’t fallen by the wayside is that Joakim Noah found another gear after Deng departed and that D.J. Augustin has played more to his potential after he was signed in December.
But the team still needs to do more with less, which is why the current test of top teams has been so valuable. Now come the challenges the Thunder provide, led by Kevin Durant, who has scored at least 25 points in 31 consecutive games.
“He’s basically a 7-footer with a high release that’s a guard,” Thibodeau said. “He scores so many different ways. He’s seen every type of defense you can throw at him. It’s very difficult to get to his shot. You have to try to make him work for his points. He’s unselfish, plays hard, catch-and-shoot, post, runs the floor. There’s nothing that he doesn’t do well.”
And since he plays so much on the perimeter, he figures to be Jimmy Butler's problem on defense. The 6-foot-7 Butler, who gets the toughest assignments every night, especially after Deng departed, will be coming off one of his worst offensive performances of the season. He was scoreless against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday until hitting a free throw with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining and didn't make his first field goal until about a half a minute later.
“Jimmy, I love his demeanor and his attitude,” Thibideau said. “Jimmy is a fierce, fierce competitor and when you’re guarding those guys, you can guard them great and they still have the ability to make, and Jimmy’s going to keep on coming. He doesn’t stop and he doesn’t get discouraged, and he battles.
“Last night, it wasn’t a great night offensively, but I thought he played a great game. He came up with a huge loose ball late in that game that was critical for us to win and that’s what I respect about him. So Jimmy’s tough and he’s guarding everyone. He guards point guards, twos, threes, fours. We have the opportunity to do some switching with him. Small on big, doesn’t matter. If he ends up on a big, he’s physical, he’s tough, he’s mentally tough. Those are all the characteristics that you need.”
It’s late in the season, but with his biggest test in front of him, there is no rest for Butler now.
“(The season) takes a toll but I think that’s part of the job,” Butler said. “Being mentally and physically fatigued you just have to fight through it. I feel like that’s where we’re all at this time of the year.”
Deng might be gone, but his example continues to resonate with Butler.
“I’ve had pretty great veterans here: Lu, Ronnie (Brewer), Kyle (Korver),” Butler said. “All these guys here now to teach me how to take care of my body this late in the season and what to do right, how to eat, massage, stretching, all that good stuff. It really counts.”