Originally Published: March 2, 2014

1. Bulls Maximize Results Without D-Rose

By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

The standard for success for the Chicago Bulls is relatively high. That's sort of the way it goes when your company stationery has six gold trophies embossed on it and No. 23 hangs in the rafters.

So let's try to avoid hyperbole but also give what's going on some context. The Bulls are in the midst of perhaps their proudest accomplishment since that fateful week in 1998 when Michael Jordan decided he was done in Chicago and Phil Jackson sped off down Interstate 80 on a motorcycle.

Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoakim Noah and the Bulls are once again hanging tough despite the loss of Derrick Rose.

The Bulls are lining up another playoff berth in their second straight season without their franchise player, as Derrick Rose has spent about the past 20 months basically doing rehab and modeling suits.

In an era in which the Miami Heat are building a dynasty and a division rival, the Indiana Pacers, are a title challenger, it can be easy to dismiss the Bulls as being merely an also-ran. That would be extremely disrespectful and shallow, because no team in the league has squeezed more out of its situation over the past two seasons, to this point, than the Bulls.

They're doing it without the benefit of ownership bailing them out with spending. Quite the opposite, in fact. And they're doing it against trends across the league, in which the Eastern Conference teams underachieve and the best offenses outduel the best defenses on a regular basis.

Friday night they overcome a double-figure deficit in Dallas to beat the Mavericks going away. It was just another quality victory with another smothering defensive performance in what has turned into an improbable quality season for the Bulls.

Heading into Sunday's matinee with the struggling New York Knicks (ABC, ESPN Radio, 1 p.m. ET), the Bulls are now 20-8 since Jan. 1, with the most wins in the league over that span. Almost all of it came in the wake of Luol Deng being traded away in a salary-cap move and injuries to key players like Jimmy Butler continuing to chip at their depth.

They've won six of their past seven against the Western Conference and five of their past seven on the road, and these sorts of numbers go on and on. Not just against odds -- but against logic -- they are now tied for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors have a bit of an easier schedule to finish the season, but with the current No. 5 seed Washington Wizards dealing with injury problems, the Bulls are in position to get home-court advantage in the playoffs in a season they basically have played without two of their top three players since training camp.

"When you deal with all the adversity we've been through this year, it makes your group that much tougher and stronger," Bulls leader Joakim Noah said Friday night. "We're going to be that resilient group, that tough group that is going to be very, very tough to play in the playoffs."

It's easy to talk that way now, the Bulls assuming the postseason. That looked uncertain in the first week of January after the Deng trade, when it looked like the team was preparing to head into the lottery. But primarily because of the leadership of coach Tom Thibodeau and especially Noah, the players never questioned where this season was headed.

They were disheartened when Rose went down again in November. They were downright mad when Deng was salary-dumped. But they've never done anything but give everything on the floor, and it's led to win after win. The talent and the luck aren't like it was back in 2010-11, when everything went their way and they racked up 62 wins before getting beat in the conference finals, but their execution and effort is the same.

They had seven different players average double figures in scoring in February, when they went 9-4 despite playing nine of those 13 games on the road. Noah is the team leader in rebounds … and assists, a pairing you will find nowhere else from the center position. Taj Gibson is having a career season. Midseason pickup D.J. Augustin is resurrecting his career. Accused of running his players into the ground in seasons past, Thibodeau doesn't have any Bull averaging more than 36 minutes per night.

And the Bulls, who rank 30th in offense and badly need shooting, just signed the best shooter on the buyout market after snaring Jimmer Fredette. Go ahead and doubt the impact of Fredette, whose disappointing run ended in his third season in Sacramento, but he'll fit right in with the rest of Bulls, who are used to being doubted and don't seem to care one bit.

Speaking frankly, the Bulls still aren't where they want to be. Ultimately, the loss of Rose has robbed them of what they expected would be chances at winning the East in each of the past two seasons. They have exceeded expectations only after their ceiling was unexpectedly dropped because of the unfortunate knee injuries to the former MVP.

But using that fact to dismiss what they've done and are doing is a mistake. There's most likely not going to be a seventh trophy added this season, but the Bulls don't believe that and they certainly don't play like it.

"Nobody expects to lose a teammate like we did. It hit us," Gibson said last week. "But Thibs built us the right way. He said he believes in us. Look at what we did last year; look at what we're doing this year. How big a deficit we were in early. We believe we can win. Like Thibs said, 'Nobody is going to give you a chance.' It's all about what we think in the locker room. That's what we believe; it's about us. We ride for each other."

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