NBA fans, most of them anyway, don't list the Chicago Bulls among the contenders in the East. It's Miami and Boston. (Sorry Orlando, have to earn your way back onto that list.)
The Bulls being left off that list is really keeping Carlos Boozer up at night.
"That's okay, we believe in ourselves," Boozer told ProBasketballTalk with a little smirk. "We're gonna keep doing what we do and we'll see where we end up. We've got to prove it when it matters."
That pretty much echoes what you hear around the Bulls locker room - they fall back to the "one game at a time" clich like a Bull Durham character. They don't mention that they beat the Celtics, Lakers, Heat and Magic last time they played them. Just focus on the next one. Especially now, as they are out on the ice show road trip.
But that road trip - and the time after the All-Star Break when they get Joakim Noah back and finally have a full roster for a stretch - will give us a chance to answer the contender question. So far they have been good but we don't know how good - by the time Noah returns after the All-Star Break he and Boozer will have missed a combined 50 games. The excuses will soon be gone. We're going to find out if the Bulls are contenders or just a piece away.
Back when the season started teams with new parts were slow to come together, it was Miami drawing headlines and proclamations of failure a month into the season. The Bulls had a little of that too - especially with Boozer out nursing a broken hand - but they flew under the radar then, too.
"We started off the season we knew the biggest challenge was how quickly we could all get on to the same page with all the changes that we had," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "The big thing for us was just to strive for improvement every single day. And we're confident if we do the right things - and we want to start with our defense, defend and rebound and take care of the ball - we feel we'll be in position to win (games).
"We're still not where we want to be. We've got a long way to go."
There it is again. One game at a time. Get a little bit better. Do that and they think they have a chance.
They've done that to the tune of a 34-16 record so far (sixth best in the NBA). But that record comes against one of the softest schedules in the league and that is starting to change. Things are getting harder right as the team has lost two straight on the road (and 18 of their final 32 are away from the United Center).
The Bulls have earned the wins they do have with defense - they are giving up 100 points per 100 possessions, the best rate in the NBA. Better than the Celtics and Magic and Heat. And they haven't missed a beat with Noah out (they've been a little better, actually). The Bulls second unit doesn't get enough credit - they may be the best defensive second unit in the NBA.
Will that defense be able to hold up against a tougher schedule? Can their offense do enough being carried as it has been by Derrick Rose and his 24.6 points per game this season? Can the bench keep providing that boost at both ends of the floor?
The Bulls aren't worrying about it, they are worrying about the Utah Jazz Wednesday night. One game at a time. Get a little bit better.
Who should be worried about it? Boston and Miami. Because one of them will get the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs and if things do come together as Thibodeau and Boozer plan Chicago will prove themselves a contender. And a very tough out.