CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls expect so much out of themselves these days that if they don't play well in a win, it feels almost like a loss.
"I felt like they outworked us," a frustrated-looking Luol Deng said after the Bulls’ 99-96 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. "I just felt like we have more talent in this team. And we made big plays at the end to win, but throughout the game I just thought they played harder. They got to the loose balls first. They're a very good team and they really outworked us. And we got to recognize that."
This coming from a man who finished with 23 points and single-handedly kept his team in the game in the first half with 16. More importantly, this coming from one of the leaders of a team that is now two games up in the Eastern Conference, after the Boston Celtics dropped yet another game at home on Friday.
Deng wasn't the only one who thought he and his teammates could have played better. Bulls point guard Derrick Rose knew he didn’t have his best performance on Friday.
"A win is the most important thing," said Rose, after going just 6-for-22 from the floor. "My teammates came back and had my back tonight. My shot wasn't going for me tonight. There will always be nights like tonight. We're playing against a good team who is trying to make a playoff push. We just have to come out with an edge and be more aggressive."
The truth is the Bulls didn't play particularly well during stretches on Friday night. But the key, as it has been all season, is that they found a way to win. As angry as some of his teammates were at the way they had played, Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer wanted to remind everybody to focus on the positive.
"Once we got in the fight of the game, I thought we fought back great," Boozer said. "And then [we] did a good job of winning the game at the end. Sometimes it just comes down to the last two or three minutes, who wants it more ... and we wanted it more."
That's been a common theme all year for this Bulls team. Inevitably, somebody comes up and makes a clutch play or a clutch stop. It happened again on this night with 10.8 seconds left as Rose drove to the hole, got fouled, and dropped home a layup that clinched the game.
"For us, we get poise at the end of the game," Boozer said. "We've been there before this season. We've had games where we had to come back. We've had games where we went up by a lot and the other team came back and we've had to hold them off. We've had games where we fought from being down a lot. We've almost seen every scenario this season, so when the game got down to the wire we were comfortable because we had already been there.
Despite his initial frustrations, Deng could agree with Boozer’s point.
"We can't be down on the negative," he said. "We've got to realize what we did wrong, but at the same time I feel like a close game at this time of the year is good for us. I think the last few minutes of the game, we made some plays there that we got to take away. And we made some plays that were really great. We've got to take the positive out of it."
For now, the positive is the fact that the Bulls control their own destiny. If they win out, or at least keep that cushion that Boston has given them over the past few days, they'll have the homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs that they've been seeking all year. But, as usual, the players refuse to buy into all the hype that's surrounding them now. Just like their coach, they plan on maintaining the laser-like focus that has gotten them to this point.
"I really don't care, I swear," Deng said of taking a two-game lead over the Celtics. "That's the honest truth. I think everyone's looking at it that way. We just got to stay focused on us. Boston is an experienced team. I don't know how much they want that home-court advantage or not, but I'm sure they feel like they can beat anyone. I think we, as a team, are finding ourself where we're at for the first time, we got to keep going. We got to keep on getting better right now."
Even when you win ... you can always get better. That's been the Bulls' way all year. They aren't going to change now.