Playing without Jimmy Butler (knee), Joakim Noah (shoulder) Nikola Mirotic (appendectomy, hematoma removal) and Derrick Rose (late scratch because of hamstring tendinitis), and almost without Pau Gasol because of flu-like symptoms, the Bulls had every reason to fold mentally after a season full of losses that took place even with a full, healthy roster.
But the reason this particular game looked different was because it was so similar to days gone by. So many times over so many years under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls made a habit of winning games like their contest on Wednesday night -- games they weren't supposed to win. Games where the odds, and the injuries, were stacked against them.
"Without a doubt, yeah," Taj Gibson said, when asked if this game felt like one of those earlier wins. "It felt just like that, knowing that we were down Derrick, Jimmy, Niko, especially Joakim, and we almost lost Pau. But he manned up, he did a great job being a solid veteran. But it was no strange situation for us, for me [especially], but I just told guys just go out there and play. And you saw right from the jump Tony Snell came out real aggressive, and then he had a big game. And everybody just did their job."
"Know your job, do your job."
It was a phrase Thibodeau loved spewing year after year at both his players and the media. It was a mentality he believed in but one that the Bulls started to lose during his final season. And they haven't been able to get it back during the first year of Fred Hoiberg's tenure.
The Bulls lost that mindset last year and are still trying to find an identity this season. That's why it was so interesting that Gibson mentioned after Tuesday's practice that he enjoyed the fact that Hoiberg, the 43-year-old soft-spoken coach, was cursing at some of his players while trying to motivate them in advance of Wednesday's game.
Before the game even started, Hoiberg noted in one breath that he thought his struggling team was getting "out-toughed," but in the next breath he wanted to make sure that the lack of an edge wasn't from a lack of intensity on his part.
"This wasn't the first time I yelled at them," he said before the game. "Let's get that straight."
After watching his team grind out one of their most impressive wins of the season, one that came with the type of offensive balance (seven players in double figures) that Hoiberg had been searching for all season, the first-year coach wore a look of relief as he spoke after the much-needed win.
"It's a next man up mentality," Hoiberg said. "It's not an ideal situation, but it's what guys like Justin Holiday, Tony Snell, E'Twaun Moore -- it's why you play this game. It's for opportunities like this, when your name players aren't out there."
For all the criticism Hoiberg has taken this season, he deserves a lot of credit for being able to rally his beleaguered team to victory on this night. Hoiberg has made plenty of mistakes in his first season as an NBA head coach, but he has also shown flashes of putting together the type of system that made him such a hot commodity around the league the past few years.
Without so many weapons on the floor, the Bulls knew they had to move the ball around the way they haven't done most of the season. They knew they had to play the type of team basketball that they haven't shown capable of on most nights. They had to rally around each and stand up to opponents instead of falling over.
The ability to do that was the biggest reason why an unfamiliar feeling permeated throughout the locker room late Wednesday night: joy. Hoiberg's team earned this win as a group, the way they had done so many times in the past, with players like Cristiano Felicio and the recently acquired Holiday making contributions.
"There was a long stretch of the game where those young guys were in there," Bulls swingman Mike Dunleavy said. "I was looking to see the names on the back of their jerseys. I didn't even recognize some of them."
Players like Doug McDermott, who is enjoying the most confident basketball of his young career over the last week. Players like Snell and Moore, both of whom have struggled at times during the year, but both of whom stepped up Wednesday when the Bulls needed them most. Moore continues to find ways to affect winning and has become an unlikely player for Hoiberg to lean on during such a tough stretch.
In a season full of bad losses and broken hype, the Bulls earned this win by channeling the past and building toward an uncertain future. They proved they had a different kind of toughness within them; now they have to prove they can find the consistency to back it up for the rest of the season.
"Really, really proud of the guys for stepping up and finding a way," Hoiberg said. "We've got four or five of our main guys out, our rotation guys, and you have to have everybody step up and be ready to play. And that's why you practice, that's why you put in the extra time -- is for opportunities and moments like this."