CHICAGO -- After years of hearing about the Bulls past failures on the circus trip, Luol Deng wore the look of relief as he stepped out of a cramped visitors locker room in the bowels of Arco Arena late Saturday night.
For the first time since the 1997-98 season, the Bulls earned a winning record (4-3) and proved to any doubters that they are, in fact, for real this season. There are plenty of reasons the Bulls are having so much early success, but Deng feels that there is one thing that has gone unnoticed.
"I think a lot of people in the NBA just overlook [how a] team [is] getting along together off the court," he said. "I think a lot of times you try to put a bunch of individuals together because of what they're capable of doing on the court, but I just think our chemistry on and off the court has just been unbelievable and this trip was great for that."
For anyone who watched the Bulls this trip, it's easy to understand what Deng is talking about. The team has completely bought into Tom Thibodeau's system. The players seem to enjoy each another. And they believe they can beat anyone.
"The big thing for us, if we're doing the right things every day, I think we'll continue to get better and better," Thibodeau said. "I think this team has the capability, we can beat anybody on a given night. I think we play hard. We're playing unselfishly."
Let's take a look back at some of the highlights of the trip:
Best player: Derrick Rose. He deserves his own category. Rose was phenomenal for the Bulls over the past two weeks and carried them at times.
In six games on the trip (he missed the Denver game because of a strained neck) Rose averaged 30.5 points, 6.5 assists and 5.6 rebounds.
"I think Derrick is the best point guard in the league right now," Deng said. "As long as he just keeps playing like that, he carries us a lot, and he's making a lot of us better."
Rose appeared to strike a balance on this trip. He took over the games when needed, but his ability to penetrate opened up space for the rest of his teammates. His ability to consistently hit the mid-range jumper is something that will continue to make him better as the season progresses.
Best game: It was the night before Thanksgiving in Phoenix, and the Bulls looked tired. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Thibodeau's bunch allowed the Suns to race out to a 23-point lead and run over the Bulls early. But Rose led them all the way back to win a 123-115 double-overtime game. Rose had 35 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The Bulls had several big wins on this trip, but it was this one that made them realize that they were never really out of any game.
"We already have confidence in each other, but it makes [our confidence level] higher," Rose said. "Knowing that we can win a game like this against a good team like that. We just got to keep it going."
Worst game: Yet again, the Bulls clawed their way back into a game in Denver. Rose wasn't playing because of a stiff neck, but it didn't matter. C.J. Watson was playing out of his mind in Rose's place (he finished with 33 points) and the Bulls were on the verge of pulling off the upset. With 24 seconds remaining, and the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead, Thibodeau inserted John Lucas III back into the game. Lucas, who was signed earlier in the day to provide point guard depth, was fouled and missed both free throws. Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony ended up draining a jumper at the buzzer as Denver pulled out the win. The up-and-down swing of emotions was tough for some players to take. An exhausted Joakim Noah sat in his locker stall for a while and stared into space.
"We can look at ourself in the mirror and say we gave it our all," he said. "But games like this, they come down to a possession and it just hurts because we know it's a game we should have won."
Best quotes: Thibodeau, on where his team stands after the first month of the season: "There's some things we're doing well. There's some things we're below average in that we have to clean up, and we also want to keep adding to the foundation that we're building. There's a lot of work to be done. When you look at quality teams, to be successful in the playoffs, we have to build the right habits throughout the course of the season. The one thing about this league we know, you start feeling too good about yourself, you're going to get knocked on your butt."
Rose, on where his team stands after the trip: "We're just ballin' right now. We know that we got a decent team and the coaching staff is doing great preparing us for the game. Tibs is doing great in practice, making sure we play hard every single time. And we're holding each other accountable on the court. So I think that's a good thing."
Thibodeau, on Noah's energy level, and if he thought the center looked tired late against the Kings: "Noah's never gassed," he said with a laugh.
Noah, on how where the team gets its identity from: "We definitely have the identity of our coach," he said. "I think he's probably the hungriest guy I've ever been around, in terms of coaching. I mean, this guy ever since the summer, the guy's in the gym all day. That's an understatement."
Denver coach George Karl, on Bulls' energy level: “I think they’re probably the hardest-playing team in the league,’’ Karl said. “Play hard makes good things happen. Play hard can pick your team up when you have your best player not playing and almost win a game. I'm not sure they weren't the best team on the court tonight. We were more fortunate probably than good.''
Look ahead: As usual, Thibodeau was focused most on the future. He may have allowed himself a few moments to soak in all the good vibes after the Sacramento win, but not many. He knows the Bulls have a tough stretch ahead in December and he wants them to be ready.
"The big thing for us is our schedule doesn't get easier when we go home," he said. "Our schedule actually gets, in some cases you could make the case that it's tougher. We have to recognize what's in front of us and when we get to practice we got to get to work."
The good news for Thibodeau is that Carlos Boozer is expected to participate in a full contact practice Monday afternoon and should be able to play soon thereafter. His presence in the lineup should take some of the offensive pressure off Rose's shoulders and should space the floor even more for the rest of his teammates.
What we learned: If the circus trip is any indication, the single biggest thing we might have learned is that the Bulls have heart. They don't quit in games, and they always believe they are going to win. That's a credit to Thibodeau and the attitude he has instilled in his players.
“The big thing is to develop the right mindset that you can win in any situation," he said. "If you look hard enough, you can find an excuse every night. That’s part of the NBA, the back-to-backs, four-in-five-nights, road trips. Everyone has to go through it and I think the real quality teams in this league find a way to overcome those things, and that’s what we’re striving to do. We don’t want to make any excuses, we want to keep getting better and we feel if we the things that are necessary -- if we defend, rebound and are low turnover -- we’ll have a chance to win wherever we are.”
Noah explained the Bulls mentality this way: "I think it's just our competitive spirit as a team," he said. "I think that that's kind of been our identity so far. I think that not a lot of teams have that. That's something we're proud of, and I think people in Chicago can be proud of ... Where does that competitive spirit come from? I think it's just our character. It's our character. We're a team that, we dig in, we dig deep, and that's something that not everybody has that."
The last word: Rose, on what he learned most from the circus trip: "I have a good team. Everybody on this team is willing to fight. Every single person. From 1-14. Everybody's going to go out there and give us their all."