By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – In the twilight of a regular season that has featured more drama than a man of his personality cares for, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took a moment for reflection Friday night after his team’s get-the-job-done 102-90 victory against NBA bottom feeder Milwaukee at the United Center.
“It’s like, ‘What have we become? Who are we?’” said Thibodeau, whose Bulls are 44-32 and tied with the Raptors for the East’s third seed. “I have a pretty good understanding. You look at the team, the last three months, it tells you a lot. There’s a body of work there, and it’s with a new group. They’ve adjusted.”
In amassing and Eastern Conference-leading 32 wins since Jan. 1, the Bulls have always had their defense, discipline and passion. It’s more difficult to pinpoint where the fine-tuning in overcoming the losses of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng and blending the specific skills of D.J. Augustin turned into comfort, but the team believes the process is complete, if its shooting execution sometimes still lacks.
Perhaps it was during a tough stretch a few weeks back during which Chicago trudged through six games, mostly against top-notch Western Conference foes, with a 3-3 mark, their confidence intact and the East’s third seed still within reach. That was part of a month-long span in which Chicago has gone 11-5 with wins against the likes of Miami, Houston and Indiana, with each loss coming to teams currently 14 or more games over .500.
In reference to that, Thibodeau gave what passes for his approval — “Responded well” — while the Bulls are left believing they’re playing their best basketball of the season at the right time.
“Everybody’s coming around,” forward Jimmy Butler said. “Everybody’s extremely comfortable, and everybody’s learned each other’s game, and we know each other’s game.”
While admitting they’re cognizant of the jostling for playoff positioning, the Bulls haven’t yet put much weight into the specifics, giving little more than Augustin’s line of, “Home-court advantage would be big for us.”
Prior to Friday’s game, Thibodeau brushed off the idea of the Bulls trying to purposely position themselves into a certain seeding slot, with the cover being possibly resting key players down the stretch.
That line of thinking isn’t in this team’s DNA, and besides, the Bulls have every reason to fight to the bitter end. While potential first-round matchups against the Wizards (who the Bulls are 0-2 against and play again Saturday night) and Nets (who struggled early but have been on fire of late) might seem similarly challenging, grabbing the third seed and potentially playing the reeling, second-seeded Pacers instead of the Heart in the second round has to be enticing.
“There’s always a lot of talk about that,” Thibodeau said. “You know, teams are so close together, you don’t know how it can unfold. So I believe what you do concentrate on is playing well – just lock into that and then you let the chips fall where they may. You’re not going to sneak around people.
“You cross that bridge when you get there. I think the important thing is to play as well as you can. As long as there’s something to play for, you should do that. In the end, if it makes sense, if someone’s nicked up and rest is more important, then you do that. But I don’t want our guys thinking that way. I want our guys thinking about improvement.”
With the foundation of cohesiveness laid after navigating rocky terrain, such a challenge is one Thibodeau will gladly embrace this time of year.
“Find ways to win, no matter what,” forward Taj Gibson said. “We’ve been in dogfights with some of the best teams. We’ve beat almost every great team in the NBA. When the playoffs come, there are going to be dogfights every night. We’re accustomed to that, we’re ready for that.
“When we’re right, we feel like we can beat anybody.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.