CHICAGO -- The team with the best offense in the NBA, the best defense, the highest point differential and the longest winning streak didn't want to hear that the victims of its 11-game run were substandard all, and Saturday's date with the Bulls in Chicago was somehow a referendum on how good the Golden State Warriors really are.
They came into the United Center the best team in the NBA to this point and left with the title, impressively. The Bulls committed physically and strategically to trying to beat Golden State by harassing the team's two best players, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, into bad nights, and not only was it the best imaginable strategy, but it worked.
Curry and Thompson made just 14 of 37 shots on what amounts to a dreadful shooting night for them, which made the Warriors' 112-102 victory even more impressive. Draymond Green, who never scored more than 24 points in an NBA game, hit the Bulls with 31 and the Warriors counterpunched their way to their 12th consecutive win, in the process showing how they've put together an NBA-best 17-2 record.
The Bulls, -- particularly Pau Gasol (22 points, 20 rebounds) and Jimmy Butler (24 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals), played well enough to beat most teams, and might have taken even the Warriors to the wire except they sabotaged their own efforts by committing 23 turnovers that handed the Warriors 27 points. When coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game that the Warriors outscoring his Bulls by 10 was "the difference in the game," he wasn't exaggerating. "You put them in the open floor," Thibs added, "and they're going to make you pay the way they shoot the ball."
What was unclear, even to Thibodeau immediately after the game, was whether the Bulls were just a sloppy mess or whether the Warriors -- remember, they are the No. 1 defensive team in the league -- forced the Bulls into all those screw-ups. The Warriors do have a bunch of 6-foot-7-ish players (Harrison Barnes, Green, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston) who are long enough, quick enough and defensive-minded enough to not have to worry about individual matchups. They switch every assignment and made ballhandling life miserable for the Bulls ... not to mention that Chicago's Joakim Noah, at 6-11, has no chance in the open floor against Green.
Green's emergence as a player, as much as any single factor, has pushed the Warriors into the elite status. Coach Steve Kerr said afterward, "He's given us a new dimension ... when your [power forward] can play pick-and-pop like that. The Bulls had us stifled a couple of times during the game and each time he came up with a 3. ... He's not the kind of guy you establish a game plan for ... that you draw plays for. ... If you can't stretch the Bulls out, they'll squeeze you."
But as Kerr also observed, even for a team as good as the Bulls are defensively, "there's only so much court you can cover."
Conversely, the Bulls on this night didn't make the Warriors cover enough court. Derrick Rose's insistence on shooting 3-pointers turned out to be ill-advised, even if at least four of them were reasonably open shots and within the frame of the offense. Rose never had an outside shooting touch, yet seven of his 11 shots were 3-point tries (he hit only one from outside the arc). What also seems ill-advised some nights is the notion that Rose has to spread the floor by shooting 3s, as if he and the Bulls were beholden to some advanced-metrics fool, one who doesn't value the mid-range game that seems to be the most comfortable part of Rose's game as he tries to recapture what he was.
Rose doesn't have to get to the basket on every play (as he used to) to be effective, and he sure as hell doesn't have to squeeze off a team-high seven 3s to be effective. But that appears to be something he'll simply have to discover over a period of months, not weeks. As Curry said of Rose shooting from deep, "That's a play we'll give up, knowing his talent, his explosiveness when he gets into the lane."
In any case, the Warriors are better than the Bulls, and the outcome, turnovers or not, reflect who the teams are at the moment.
Noah and Rose are still probing, and not playing with nearly the confidence or joy of Curry, Thompson and Green. The Bulls' starters, who have played as well as (and probably better than) any such group in the Eastern Conference, are going to have to go through a string of hard practices (as Thibs pointed out) before they're ready to beat teams such as Portland and Golden State.
Right now Butler and Gasol are the two best players on the team, and Noah and Rose are going to have to join them if the Bulls are going to be an elite team. And the Bulls can't have Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson combine for eight turnovers off the bench if they're going to win games with the real contenders.
Still, the Warriors are a better team right now, and this game served as a reminder that the Toronto Raptors, Bulls, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers (the best teams in the East) simply aren't on the same level, and probably won't be at any point this season. Much was made coming into this game about all 11 games of the Warriors' streak before Saturday coming at the expense of teams who at this point did not have winning records. Asked afterward if the Warriors talked about any of this, Curry said, "We didn't. We feel if we play the way we're supposed to play ... we feel like we're the best team in the league. ... I don't think we had any doubt. There's a quiet confidence. ... We do what we're supposed to do we're going to win a lot of games. We're pretty special when we're clicking."
Curry talked fondly of winning for the first time in his career against the Bulls in Chicago. Kerr, of course, has much fonder memories. The only blemish on his night was a technical foul that seemed entirely not like Kerr, who said he's the luckiest coach in the league for having the players he has. Unsaid is that he's also the smartest coach in the league for saying "no" to the Knicks and "yes" to the Warriors.
As long as the San Antonio Spurs play in the Western Conference, the Warriors will play in the shadows to an extent, no matter how many consecutive games they win, and Kerr understands that more than most, given that two of his five championship rings came while playing for San Antonio. "It's good to have great players," Kerr said, breaking into a smile. "It's my first job and I come into the league and inherit these guys."
It was the Bulls' bad fortune to run into Kerr's guys at the end of what wound up being a difficult week, featuring that somewhat infamous loss to the Dallas Mavericks and another to the Warriors. The Bulls are, strangely enough, 2-5 at home this season, 0-3 at home against the only teams that matter: Cleveland, Dallas and Golden State. They surge, they sputter, they seem uncharacteristically frustrated, which is what you'd hope to see from a team with aspirations.
There are no conclusions to draw yet, only work to be put in, improvement to find. But the thing that seems clear one-quarter of the way through this NBA season is that while the Bulls are a pretty darn good team, there are others out there, particularly the one from Golden State, setting the pace.