CHICAGO -- As he watched Thursday night's gritty 118-111 overtime win over the New York Knicks unfold from the bowels of the United Center, injured Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, he and fellow injured big man Joakim Noah got so frustrated they almost broke the television screen on which they were watching the game.
They couldn't believe they weren't out on the floor with the rest of their teammates, but they never doubted that the Bulls could find a way to win despite the fact that they still have so many guys out because of various injuries. They knew the spirit and will they play with as a group doesn't change -- no matter who is on the floor. They knew that just because the talent might not have been there, it didn't mean the heart of this squad suddenly disappeared.
Most of all, Gibson, Noah and the rest of the Bulls understood the most true fact of all when it comes to this up and down Bulls season without Derrick Rose: Just when you're about to count out the Bulls and write them off completely, that's when they will find a way to surprise everyone.
"It was a big win," Gibson said. "It seems that we don't really get any respect around the East. ... We tried to make a statement. We tried to let people know that we're still a tough team. We got a lot of injuries. A lot of people don't understand we've had a lot of injuries on this team throughout the season and we're still playing well. But with this team, you don't know what you're going to get. We lose to below-.500 teams, and we come out and beat some of the best teams around the NBA."
In many ways, the past two weeks have served as a perfect microcosm for this team as it enters the final four games of the regular season. The Bulls have beaten the Miami Heat, who went into that game on a 27-game winning streak, and the Knicks, who went into Thursday's game on a 13-game winning streak. They've also lost to the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors. They know they can beat any team or lose to any team on a given night, which gives them a perfect amount of confidence in games, such as Thursday's, that most people don't believe they can win.
"Honestly, there wasn't anything said about the [Knicks'] streak," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. "It wasn't like, 'Oh well, they've won X amount of games in a row and we're going to stop them.' It was just focus on what we have to do, and for the most part, we did a pretty good job."
There's the key for the Bulls. When they are locked in and focused, they really can beat anyone. This notion is exemplified by the play of veteran point guard Nate Robinson. He has the rare ability to continuously make coaches furious and incredibly happy in the span of a single possession. He proved that again against the Knicks, going off for 35 points off the bench. For as much flak as Robinson takes because of some of his questionable decisions on the floor, he also plays with the type of swagger his teammates feed off.
The diminutive guard truly believes he is the best player on the floor at all times, and he plays with the type of confidence the Bulls have been lacking at various points of the season. When the Bulls need a jolt, usually Robinson is there to provide one. After hitting several big shots, Robinson raced down the floor doing the "discount double check" celebration move first made famous by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and then reintroduced by New York Knicks guard Steve Novak. When asked why he decided to mimic the move multiple times throughout the game, Robinson confidently responded, "You've just got to let them know what's up."
That attitude rubbed off on his teammates. They might not have been dancing down the floor, but they played with the type of passion that had been missing over the previous few games.
"It was amazing, man," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said of Robinson's performance. "He just took the game over. He just snapped, I don't know what happened out there, but he just got the switch on and took over the fourth and obviously took over overtime. He's the reason why we won."
If Robinson is the reason the Bulls won, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler is reason No. 2. Over the past two games, he has played a combined 98 minutes and continues to improve all the time. His work ethic has set him apart this season, and it's one of the reasons he is so respected in the locker room. Butler isn't the most talented player on the floor, but he refuses to be outworked. He has taken coach Tom Thibodeau's hard-nosed mentality to heart, and it has shown. That's why there's really no secret as to why the Bulls continue to beat teams such as the Heat and Knicks on the biggest stages of all ... unlike many other teams in the league, they actually believe they can.
The issue for the Bulls is whether they can find the type of consistency to play like this over and over again as they get set to head into the postseason.
"Honestly, we're just trying to get better for the playoffs," Boozer said. "Obviously get healthy for the playoffs. We want to improve in every area so that when the playoffs get here we're playing our best basketball. It ends up being we broke a couple streaks and we're proud of that but honestly we just want to be playing our best in the playoffs."
If the Bulls can find a way to get guys such as Gibson, Noah and maybe even Rose on the floor playing in the game instead of watching it in the locker room, there's a very good chance their best basketball might still be in front of them.