When a raucous United Center crowd rises to its feet Saturday evening, it won’t be the first reminder of the Bulls’ playoff journey finally beginning — a seven-month process full of bumps and bruises.
All they have to do is look at the other side at the Milwaukee Bucks to see the ultimate study in contrast, a team playing with house money, merely happy that the United Center security allowed them in the building without a ticket.
The Bucks lost Chicago product Jabari Parker early in the season and haven’t missed a beat, but will welcome him back next season ready to take another leap. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for stretches of the season, most notably his six-week absence and desperate fans were ready to leap from the tallest building, not wanting to hear anything about “next season”.
Of all the questions surrounding this Bulls franchise and their future, Saturday represents a time where they can fully embrace the moment without conscience and soak themselves into the playoff atmosphere while fully understanding the task at hand.
“You have a great understanding of what you’re looking for in certain situations because you’ve been working on it so long,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The hard work, the conditioning, the discipline, that’s how you win close, tough games. Hopefully you’ve done that.”
Thibodeau’s future, of course, is always debated and rumored but never clearly defined. Bucks coach Jason Kidd isn’t as seasoned as Thibodeau but has the sway and power many coaches dream of, his power play from the Brooklyn Nets last season likely frowned upon publicly but admired privately.
Kidd’s journey began last summer when he decided to exit Brooklyn amid turmoil. The Bulls’ journey began around the same time, when Pau Gasol chose them over the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat and when Derrick Rose began practicing with U.S.A. Basketball, in preparation for what could begin so many months down the line.
Thibodeau admits the ride has been anything but smooth, as the Bulls emerged with a 50-win season but had to hitchhike their way to the top rung of the Eastern Conference, not as dominant as the Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks but perhaps more prepared than the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
“You have to embrace whatever comes your way,” Thibodeau said. “This has been a very challenging year with all the injuries and guys in and out. But I’ve been through that before.”
The year was 1999, and Thibodeau references the season enough with media that it wouldn’t be a shock to hear him speed-rap the same mantra with his team about the run the New York Knicks went on in the lockout-shortened season.
Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby were new additions but were hurt in early parts of the season while Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson creaked along on Jeff Van Gundy’s team, where Thibodeau was a top assistant. Once Sprewell and Camby got healthy, and more importantly, consistent, the Knicks won six of eight headed to the playoffs as a 27-23 eighth seeded team.
“We needed every one of them to get the eighth spot,” Thibodeau said. “And then we ended up getting to the Finals. We got healthy as we went along. Whatever you’re faced with, just do the best you can with it. Put everything you have into it.”
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A lot of things worked in their favor that spring and they even rebounded from the loss of an aging Ewing in the conference finals against the Pacers. But they adjusted and continued their improbable run before the San Antonio Spurs beat them in five games for their first title.
The adjustments have come on the fly all season with the loss of Rose, Joakim Noah’s minutes restrictions and injuries to Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson. It’s forced Thibodeau to mix and match all the way to April, and Noah and Rose’s injuries are minor considering the MASH units Thibodeau has had to trot onto the floor some nights.
“If you're a glass half full or empty guy, that's how you look at it,” Dunleavy said. “We've had the opportunity to get some guys in the lineup, develop some guys because other people have been out. Hopefully we'll have a deeper roster and that's one of the advantages we have going into the playoffs.”
Dunleavy was hinting at the urgency but didn’t directly express it until he was cornered about it. A soon-to-be 35-year-old with only three playoff appearances under his belt, these chances don’t come around often.
Noah’s back, Rose is too, and should Gibson’s left shoulder stay attached to his body, it’s the healthiest they’ve been all year, their toughest test to come.
“Yeah, I mean, that's what I'm kind of getting at,” Dunleavy said. “Everybody's dialed in mentally, certainly physically there's been some issues throughout the course of the year. You can't control that stuff. Guys have battled back. But mentally, everyone seems dialed in right now, ready to go. Everybody's got their house in order, so to speak. We're anxious to see what we can do.”
The journey begins Saturday night.