By Cody Westerlund-
(CBS) For the non-partisan and the Bulls fans at the United Center on Friday night, the amusement started early.
There was the Nuggets’ attempt to inbound the ball off a made basket less than two minutes in, when Kenneth Faried chucked the ball off a teammate’s back heel near half court. Minutes later, a pass thrown from under Denver’s basket ended up some two-thirds of the way down the court in the wrong direction.
This caused Nuggets coach Brian Shaw to soon ask for a timeout – and, presumably later tonight, something on the rocks.
The real kicker came just before halftime, when Jan Vesely tipped in a bucket with 3.4 seconds left. The Nuggets then somehow pulled off the amazing dual feat of not guarding inbounder Joakim Noah or having more than one defender get back on defense. So when Noah baseball chucked a free ball down the court and D.J. Augustin won the footrace to it, most could only chuckle when he was fouled by Randy Foye on his jumper and ended the half with two free throws.
This was par for the course for a team whose coach afterward admitted his team had quit on him.
“I felt like tonight we had some guys who just decided that they weren’t going to play tonight, that they weren’t going to put forth any effort to get the job done,” Shaw said.
“As a staff, we have to beg guys to give effort when they play. I told our team, ‘I wish paychecks were predicated on night-to-night performance.’”
So excuse me if I don’t chalk up the Bulls’ 117-89 win against the Nuggets as meaningful. The visitors’ bewilderment with defensive rotations called to mind a fourth-grader taking a calculus test.
What remains a nagging question, though, is this: Does this season-high-tying five-game winning streak by the Bulls mean anything or is it simply a product of underwhelming competition that had a combined winning percentage of .459 entering Friday?
Consider the foes before the Nuggets.
The Lakers’ lack of star power makes you wonder why Jack Nicholson still shows up. The Hawks were actually starting Gustavo Ayon at center (Who? That’s the point) when they visited town. Despite their recent solid play, the Nets are still old and prone to do stupid things (big man Andray Blatche took more 3-pointers than he grabbed rebounds last week in Chicago, for example), while the Raptors are actually pretty solid, if somewhat overachieving.
Inherently, the Bulls (29-25) know this, too, as they sit four games over .500 for the first time this season. They can only play the schedule in front of them, and they can only put a sliver of stock into what they’ve done lately heading into Sunday afternoon’s big contest at Miami.
“They’re the defending champions, so what we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter,” Augustin said.
“For us, it’s what are we doing each and every day?” coach Tom Thibodeau added. “Are we getting better? Are we improving?”
There’s no doubt Chicago has improved. Its 117 points Friday were the most the offense had generated this season in regulation, and for the seventh straight game, the Bulls jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter.
So while the end results in the past five games can roll in one ear and out the other, what the Bulls believe does matter is how they’ve found some recent success. The guards are creating easier shots of late, and the Bulls are executing well. Augustin is shooting 59 percent on 3-pointers in his last seven games, and Tony Snell came off the bench to score a career-high 20 points Friday.
“Our mindset has been really good,” Noah said. “Shootarounds, practices, just everything. I think we got a hungry group right now. Everybody’s comfortable with their roles, everybody knows what to expect from each other … The ball movement was really, really good tonight.
“It all starts with our mindset. We’re gaining a lot of confidence.”
That mindset finds its roots in Thibodeau, who when asked about the winning streak Friday night cautioned, “The important thing is to not look backwards and to stay locked in.”
It was fitting advice. Because while Thibodeau didn’t say it, a four-day stretch with road games against the Heat and Hawks and home contest Warriors next week means one thing.
We’ll find out if this most recent brand Bulls basketball is for sustainable.
Cody Westerlund is sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.