Bulls

Jim Boylen and the Bulls are preparing for a grueling month of January

Jim Boylen and the Bulls are preparing for a grueling month of January

When the Bulls welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the United Center Saturday night, it will be only the team’s second game in a weeklong holiday spell. Gaps like that are a rarity over the course of an arduous NBA season. 

But it won’t last. After facing the Hawks, then the Bucks on Dec. 30, the Bulls embark on a month of January that will feature 17 games in just 31 days, eight at home and nine on the road.

“We know what we have now in January, it's going to be probably the toughest month,” Tomas Satoransky said after Friday afternoon practice. “A lot of traveling, a lot of back-to-backs.”

All things considered, such a gauntlet comes on the heels of a December worth building on: As of this writing, the Bulls own a 6-6 record and the second-highest rated defense in the NBA this month. Much has been made of the team’s improving chemistry at recent practices, as well. The offense is still lagging and head-scratching stretches persist, but playing .500 basketball is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for this team.

Taking the next one will be an uphill battle. It’s not enough that the Bulls’ game frequency and travel schedule are about to ramp up, the level of their competition is, too. In January, the team will face nine opponents with records currently over .500. They’ve faced 12 such opponents all season so far, and are 1-11 in said games.

“We know it’s a big January coming up. We play a lot of good teams. And the games come so quick. We know we have to be locked in,” Kris Dunn said. “We’ve played close games. My whole thing that I like to say to the team is: Keep the game close until the fourth quarter. And then anything can happen. It could go our way or the other team’s way. But if we keep the game close, no matter what team it is, we have a chance.”

Dunn has a point there: At this level of competition, anything can happen in the closing minutes of games decided by one or two possessions, and the Bulls have been in their fair share of tight ones — 22 to be exact, tied for most in the league per NBA.com’s definition (a game within a five-point differential with five minutes or less to play).

The rub, of course, is that they’re 8-14 in said contests. Their most recent one was a 103-95 loss to the Magic on Monday, which Zach LaVine said left him “as upset as I’ve been over a game.” LaVine and Boylen credited the sting of that defeat to the fact that a win would have moved them into a tie for the eighth seed of the Eastern Conference — by all accounts, the playoffs remain a goal. That makes continuing to improve over the coming month, regardless of circumstance, all the more essential.

But qualities intrinsic to this team — their aggressive, up-tempo tendencies; their propensity for playing in high-leverage games — have the potential to make grueling stretches of the schedule downright sapping.

"We play really physical basketball where we run a lot, we put a lot of pressure, so obviously we are a little fresher at the beginning [of games]," Satoransky said Thursday of the team's in-game playstyle. "That's a challenge for this team, and I know we still struggle in those situations, but I think we are getting better at them and I think it's going to be good lessons for us for the future of the season."

That future is now, and the organization, top to bottom, is aware of it. 

“I'm really trying to figure out how to keep us as fresh as possible. I've been studying it.” Jim Boylen said. “I meet with Chip [Schaefer, Director of Sports Performance] on our numbers, our camera numbers. There's a lot that goes into it, our recovery numbers, I get a printout every day of our recovery. I'll get a printout from this practice of how much energy each guy's used, his mechanical load. I'll study it, and we'll study it, and we'll figure it out.

“There's a lot that goes into it and it's important to me to manage this team appropriately. We want to run and we have a very active defense, so those things can drain you… It's all part of this process, but 17 games in a month is tough.”

Boylen added that the team will likely get creative managing everything from practices and shootaround schedules, to in-game timeout usage to try to keep them fresh. But, Boylen also stressed, no single opponent — or string of them — is going to get the team too high or too low.

“I think number of games,” Boylen said of which aspect of their January slate looms largest. “I don't go into a game saying, well this team's better than us, or this team's not. We want to play our basketball, play good basketball, prepare for the things we can control and keep growing.”

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Scottie Pippen explains why second half of Bulls' title run was more special

Scottie Pippen explains why second half of Bulls' title run was more special

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series is going to get plenty of attention with the rest of the sports world on hold.

The series will focus on the Bulls’ final title season, 1997-98, and was recently moved up to debut on April 19.

Scottie Pippen talked about those title years for the Bulls in a recent episode of his ESPN show, “The Jump.” He explained what it was like knowing the 1997-98 season would be the team’s last run together.

“For me, it was really everything coming to a head for us,” Pippen said. “A great run through the 90s. Dennis [Rodman] had came and joined us the second half of that run, and that part was really the more special part because we were the best team in basketball for a long time, and no one knocked us off. Knowing that that was the end of our run and that we had to end it that way, we made it very special, and we wanted to end it with a championship.”

It’s noteworthy that Pippen says the second three-peat felt more special than the first. It would make sense for the team’s first title to be special because it was the breakthrough, but Pippen likes the fact that the Bulls were able to maintain their throne for so long and never lose a playoff series with a full strength team.

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Dennis Rodman brushed off big-men, trash-talk and curfew during Bulls dynasty

Dennis Rodman brushed off big-men, trash-talk and curfew during Bulls dynasty

Dennis Rodman listened to the question, thought about it for a second and then started brushing his teeth.

After all, he had to catch up with World Championship Wrestling members Brian Knobbs and Jerry Sags, who had just declared the Bulls forward an honorary “Nasty Boy.”

Reporters’ notes from 24 years ago don’t shed much enlightenment on what such a title signifies. But if Rodman practiced hygiene for it — this is, after all, a player who often eschewed a postgame shower — then it must’ve been special.

Before a recent re-broadcast of this 1996 Bulls’ title run, which continues with Sunday night’s showing of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Orlando, I wrote about Rodman’s “Walk of Shame.” This was the postgame routine Rodman utilized to mimic a red carpet’s entrance, walking down a hallway to answer postgame questions rather than doing so while standing in front of his locker.

Rodman mostly employed this practice at home games, which is why, on this day, he cut short his postgame media session to brush his teeth inside the visitors’ locker room.

One might surmise that Rodman’s trademark outrageousness was the story. That his play overshadowed his behavior makes it time to shift the focus back to on the court.

Man, Rodman was something for the Bulls’ second three-peat, but perhaps never more evidently than during this title run and in this series. After a nine-point, 16-rebound effort in Game 3, Rodman’s averages for the series sat at 12.3 points and 16.3 rebounds.

The Bulls held large rebounding advantages in all three victories.

Plus, what other team could largely utilize single coverage using a 6-foot-7 defender like Rodman on the 7-1 Shaquille O’Neal? In this game, O’Neal, who also matched against Luc Longley and Bill Wennington at times, managed just 17 points on 8-for-19 shooting.

“[O’Neal] can talk all the trash he wants,” Rodman said. “I think his game is totally off. I’m not going to snap either. I got people grabbing me. I got people clawing and scratching at me. It doesn’t matter. I like that.

“Shaq hit me with an elbow twice, but that’s great. I like that kind of physical play.”

Rodman said these words before going to brush his teeth and then meet his wrestler buddies. But he had one more thing to say, reminding everyone that he didn’t have a curfew.

Just when you tried to steer the focus back to Rodman’s sublime on-the-court play, he wouldn’t always let you.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

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