By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) The Bulls are getting it backwards.

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They burned through a compressed regular-season schedule like every game was a playoff, punishing the NBA’s bottom-feeding tomato cans at home and on the road. They crashed over opponents in waves, using disciplined defense and opportunistic scoring to compile the league’s best record.

With Derrick Rose missing almost half the year, they proved to be four deep at his position, even getting meaningful contributions from a 36-year-old NBDL refugee. They won despite Luol Deng having one arm and Rip Hamilton barely existing. They outworked better teams, including the Miami Heat.

But now, when it really does matter, the quality we appreciated just isn’t there. What’s the point of playing 66 games with postseason determination if that doesn’t continue into the actual playoffs? Now you don’t run the floor? Now you don’t show hard on wing screen-roll to dissuade a three-point shooter? Now you let a rebounder push you out of inside position?

Since the lamentable pregame stunt that presented a broken Rose to the world and to his team, as if to mock the pointlessness of it all, the Bulls have been beaten by a Sixers team that really isn’t any good.

That’s easy to forget as this first-round series plays out, that Philly is the eight-seed, and lucky to be even that after their crash-and-burn second half. Their half-court offense is a miserable combination of “my turn” possessions, contested jumpers and shot-clock-bailout heaves. They don’t have a pure point guard, or a frontcourt player with anything close to a complete skill-set. Their arena isn’t full, and isn’t all that loud.

Rose or not, Noah or not, the Bulls we have watched for the past five months should be more effective than this.

Deng was on the All-Star team, remember. We praised him for improving his game to the point where he became a dangerous second option on offense and a smart, aggressive defender and rebounder. If his failings in this series are due to injury or fatigue, fine, but then he’d better not suit up for the Olympics.

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It’s possible Deng represents how hard the Bulls played in less important games, and what physical resources Tom Thibodeau expended trying to get the top overall seed. That can only be part of it, however, since there are tired, bruised bodies all over the league.

Ronnie Brewer is completely healthy, and almost completely benched. Hamilton has recovered from his groin and shoulder injuries, but has yet to recover from being old. Kyle Korver has a difficult time finding his “hot sauce” when somebody has the audacity to stand in front of him.

Let the Bulls’ performance to this point serve as a reminder to those who read far too much into individual outcomes of regular-season NBA games. The time to play your absolute hardest is now, not then. May is not January.

Scouting reports are more complete and better reinforced during shoot-arounds and practices. Rotations shorten, and specific matchups are exploited. Life is tougher, and it was completely fair to expect a battle-tested Bulls roster to rise to the occasion against a lesser foe.

Few of us chose to ride the crazy bus after Rose went down, going along with the preposterous idea that the Bulls still could challenge Miami, or that they were somehow better without their best player. Skip Bayless and like-minded friends can enjoy wearing that badge of Wrong Basketball Thoughts.

But it was supposed to be better than this. Not like this. Not after they sent the message that they would never lack effort regardless of who was hurt or who was on the floor, no matter the quality of opponent or where the game was played.

TV microphones caught Thibodeau imploring his team during a fourth-quarter timeout, reminding them of what they had done all season, seemingly without needing to be told.

“You gotta fight,” he croaked. “You gotta fight!”

For your right to keep playing.

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Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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