With the NBA playoffs less than a month away, the Eastern Conference standings look like a flashback to the late 1990s: the Chicago Bulls are on top. After routing Sacramento by 40 points on Monday night and Atlanta by 33 points last night, the Bulls are now the No. 1 seed in the East. Chicago hasn’t been this good since Michael Jordan’s second retirement after he led the Bulls to the 1998 NBA championship.
The biggest reasons for the improvement are the play of third-year guard Derrick Rose and the work of first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau. The supremely talented Rose was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft and the 2009-2010 Rookie of the Year. But outside shooting had been his weakness. Not anymore. Rose has developed a lethal shooting touch, which has made him the leading candidate for NBA Most Valuable Player—ahead of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Rose had 30 points and 10 assists in the win over Atlanta and is the league’s sixth-leading scorer at 24.8 points per game.
Chicago (51-19) has won 10 of its last 11 games, and team defense has ignited the hot streak. That’s where Thibodeau comes in. A longtime NBA assistant who most recently aided Boston coach Doc Rivers on the Celtics' 2009 NBA championship team, Thibodeau has molded Rose and frontcourt players Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah into a stifling defensive unit. The Bulls are a defense-first team with plenty of offensive weapons, a young team whose confidence is growing. The Bulls bear no resemblance to the team that went 41-41 the past two seasons and lost to Cleveland in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Instead, the Bulls are looking like the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman teams that gave Chicagoans many reasons to cheer each spring.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
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