By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — In the history of the NBA, you’d be hard pressed to find a 10-20 team as confident as these Chicago Bulls.
There was guard Denzel Valentine, fielding questions after the Bulls’ 112-94 throttling of the Magic at the United Center on Wednesday night, then turning his attention to a matchup against the LeBron James-led Cavaliers on Thursday night.
“I think we’re one of the better teams in the East,” Valentine said of the 13th-place Bulls.
Moments earlier, forward Nikola Mirotic had been asked the customary query since he returned with the Bulls flailing at 3-20, only to then reel off seven in a row with the self-assured Mirotic pointing out he was the common denominator. Are you once again predicting a win next time out?
“Why not?” Mirotic responded.
What the Bulls are doing is unprecedented. A win against the Bucks last Friday made the Bulls the first team in NBA history to win five straight games after losing at least 10 consecutively. Since then, Chicago has tallied two more victories, and Wednesday was one of the its best of the season.
The Bulls jumped out to a 12-0 lead, tallied a season-best 31 assists, led by as many as 30 and placed six players in double figures while shooting 50 percent. Denzel Valentine led the way with 16 points, while Kris Dunn and Mirotic had 15 apiece.
“Offensively, we’re playing finally the way we have to play — enjoying scoring a lot of points, scoring the ball, especially on fast breaks too,” Mirotic said.
“We played unselfish, finding each other. It was really fun tonight.”
That unselfishness is a trait coach Fred Hoiberg believed his group had flashed previously but was struggling to display under the lights because of inexperience, poor shooting and a lack of his preferred pace. Hoiberg credited the Bulls for pushing the ball better recently, not even so much for transition points but to flatten the defense and thus spark the Bulls’ early actions.
Spearheading the Bulls’ offensive surge has been Dunn, who has averaged 16.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.5 turnovers with 49.7 percent shooting in his last 12 games.
“He’s really grown in making the right play,” Hoiberg said.
His play at point guard has in turn helped so many others blossom as well, including Mirotic, who’s leading the team in averaging 19.6 points.
“We are understanding each other more now, understanding guys, who’s next to you, how he likes to shoot, when we need to give him the ball,” Mirotic said. “It was just about the time and right now we are finding the way in how to play those games and how to play with each other.”
While the Bulls’ reversal of fortunes has left fans and league observers alike in disbelief, Hoiberg maintains that he felt more success was coming even amid the 10-game skid. He pointed to the fact that the Bulls lost three of those contests by two points or fewer.
“Our guys were competing throughout that stretch,” Hoiberg said. “It just took us to get a win to gain some confidence, and that’s a huge thing in this league, to have the confidence to know you can go out and finish games.”
That confidence is bordering on absurd now. It was in training camp that Valentine mentioned the term “playoffs” for the rebuilding Bulls, and he reiterated Wednesday evening that “I believe and mean what I say.”
As you’d expect, Hoiberg continues to offer more even-keeled comments, praising the Bulls’ effort. He did let his guard down for a quick moment was a reporter wondered if too much has been made of the seven-game winning streak.
“No, you guys should make way more of it,” he said with a laugh.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.