The Bulls became the first NBA team to win 40 games and clinch a playoff berth Saturday and did it in thrilling fashion, as Luol Deng's buzzer-beating follow-up in overtime beat Toronto to sweep the home-and-home series against the Raptors. The game was indicative of the Bulls' season thus far, as Deng, C.J. Watson and Carlos Boozer led the way, with not only Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton still out of the lineup, but Joakim Noah getting ejected early in the contest for accruing two technical fouls, the second of which for throwing a ball in the direction of an official, which the center was contrite about following Sunday's practice at the Berto Center.
Regardless of who they've been missing, the Bulls have kept things rolling, as evidenced by their 12-4 record without Rose, the reigning league MVP. The likes of Watson, new fan favorite John Lucas III and even the recently-released Mike James have stepped up in his absence, while Ronnie Brewer has more than capably filled in for Hamilton, who could return from his right-shoulder injury sooner than people think, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Rose has played brilliantly when he's been on the floor, serving more as a distributor this season, while Deng, a first-time All-Star, has to be commended for remaining effective while playing through torn ligaments in his left wrist, Noah has turned his game up since a slow start and the much-maligned Boozer has been the only starter to play in all 50 games after his injury-riddled debut season in Chicago. Still, it's tempting to say the Bulls' bench -- featuring the aforementioned Watson, Brewer and Lucas, along with designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver, the defensively-dominant inside tandem of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, as well as rookie swingman Jimmy Butler -- has been the team's MVP.
The reserves have truly bailed the squad out of countless games this season, with last week's win at Toronto serving as the ultimate illustration, as a 20-0 fourth-quarter run ran the Raptors out of their own building after facing a double-digit deficit earlier in the second half. If not the bench, then the Bulls' defense should get the credit for the team's success thus far, but of course, since that's a collective effort, it makes that one man should be acclaimed for the consistency on that end of the floor, even if he thinks it could be better on most nights: Tom Thibodeau.
Besides the stifling, record-setting second-half shutdown in Orlando last week, it's not positive as to whether Thibodeau has ever been truly pleased with the Bulls' defense, but the praise of his peers makes it clear that they marvel at the job he's done, which could result in unprecedented back-to-back league top-coaching honors in his first two seasons as an NBA head coach. Longtime Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich might be his strongest competition, but unlike the Bulls, San Antonio isn't regarded as a true championship contender. So, in a season where Chicago's best player has been limited for health reasons, it's only right that the blue-collar squad with the league's best record heading into the season's home stretch, giving them a slim cushion in the race for home-court advantage, be honored with its coach, the fastest to 100 wins in NBA history, taking home hardware that, in his words, reflects the team's success, whether he likes the attention or not.