CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls took a big step in their growing process over the weekend by sweeping through Florida with wins over the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat, but the truest sign of their improvement may have come in Monday night’s ugly-looking 85-77 win over the New Orleans Hornets.
Coming off such an emotional win over the Heat, it would have been easy for the Bulls to fall over against the Hornets -- but they didn't let it happen. They ramped up the defensive pressure late, holding a Chris Paul-less Hornets team scoreless over the final 3:18 of the game, and made plays at the end.
A few months ago, this might have been a game the Bulls would have dropped, but not now. They're learning different ways to win and that is the mark of a team that truly is turning into one of the league's elite.
"When you play in a game like we did [Sunday] against Miami, it's normal, it's human nature, to have a letdown," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "But I think we realized that. We really stayed focused, and even in the last 3:15 of the game, that's what Coach was emphasizing. Just staying focused on the moment, understanding what we needed to do to win this game."
The focus was there when the Bulls needed it most and that's a direct result of the culture Tom Thibodeau has created. This is the type of game Thibodeau loves because it was won with the ending defensive effort that the Bulls will need to have in the playoffs.
"A good team finds different ways to win," Thibodeau said. "Sometimes you have to be able win with a low pace. It was a grind-it-out game. both teams were playing good defense, so
you’re going deep into the clock. Sometimes you can score more and you have to win that way also. But I think the big thing is when you’re not going well offensively, you have to be able to count on your defense and your rebounding. I think guys are comfortable playing with each other now, so there’s a trust. But we still have a lot of things we need to improve."
That's the funny thing about the learning process that Thibodeau is directing at the moment, it never stops. The good news for the Bulls is that they have completely bought into what Thibodeau is selling and they trust him. They know he's never satisfied and that attitude is rubbing off on the players.
"Until we win it all, even when we win it all, I don't know if Coach is going to say where we're at [is good]," Bulls forward Luol Deng said with a laugh. "That's the best thing about Coach, really. I think that [attitude] has helped us a lot. It's helped Derrick a lot, even playing great every night, and still coming in and playing hard, and all of us in the locker room. Coach is really always pushing us and that's something that's going to be with us for a long time."
The Bulls know that they are getting better and they like where things are headed.
"We’re just playing good right now," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "Against teams that’s barely getting in the playoffs, or teams under .500, we tend to have a little bit of trouble, but as long as we're winning and we’re learning from them."
That is music to Thibodeau's ears and that's the reason why he and his players think they can get even better ... like they did in gutting out a win on Monday night.
"It's good to look back at the game and see that we didn't shoot that well and we're still able to win the game," Deng said. "That says a lot about our defense. It was a tough road trip; not making any excuses, but playing a team like Orlando in a TV game, and then playing early in Miami, it was a tough game. But we've got guys in this locker room that know how to win. Even when we're struggling we just find ways to win."