Evidence is starting to mount: The full-strength Bulls are a pretty good team, capable of finishing well above .500 and being competitive in the playoffs.
The short-handed Bulls do OK against lesser opponents, but have a tough time creating quality wins.
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The past few weeks provide a perfect illustration. When center Joakim Noah missed seven games surrounding the all-star break, the Bulls beat New York, Minnesota, Indiana, but were thumped at home by Orlando.
Last week, Noah was vital in a victory over Portland. But then he had to be shut down because of severe plantar fasciitis in his left foot and the Bulls have since lost three in a row to Indiana, Atlanta and Memphis.
The short-term future doesn't look promising. The next seven games are against teams that are .500 or better, starting Saturday night at the United Center against Dallas, which brought a nine-game win streak into Friday's home game against Sacramento.
"Talent wins," coach Vinny Del Negro said following Friday's practice at the Berto Center. "When we have our whole group together and play well like we have in the past, we've been able to beat good teams. When you have your starting center out, it puts pressure on other guys."
Luol Deng, Brad Miller and Kirk Hinrich skipped Friday's practice to rest minor injuries, and all three are expected to play against the Mavericks. Noah will be out at least three weeks, however.
In the past two games, the Bulls have been dominated on the glass, with a minus-41 rebound differential. And even though both Atlanta and Memphis were playing the second leg of back-to-back games, the Bulls were dominated in the fourth quarter. The Hawks closed the game on a 31-13 run, while the Grizzlies finished with a 26-12 surge during the final 10 minutes.
"It's not time to panic or be negative. We gave one away," Deng said following Thursday's loss. "Everybody's got to get on the same page. We just lost three in a row. We've got to turn that around. It's time to win."
This is really the continuation of a trend that began early in the season. The Bulls scored an impressive victory at Cleveland back on Nov. 5, then Tyrus Thomas broke his arm the following afternoon and missed seven weeks. Hinrich also missed time with a thumb injury.
During the seven weeks the Bulls were missing at least one of their big men, they went 7-15 with the only quality victory coming against Atlanta in overtime on Dec. 19.
When they were back at full strength, the Bulls were 21-10 from Dec. 26 to Feb. 26. With Noah sidelined, they managed a nice win at Houston and beat Miami at home, but that's the extent of quality wins by the short-handed Bulls.
Looking back at the Memphis game, when the Bulls held a 17-point lead late in the second quarter, Del Negro focused on defensive shortcomings.
"As the game went on, I thought we started to slip a little bit with our intensity on the defensive end," he said. "That's how we've won all year, by shutting people down defensively, getting out in the open court and making plays in the fourth quarter offensively. Hopefully we can get back to that."
Bulls vs. Mavericks
Time: 7 p.m. Saturday
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: WMVP 1000-AM
Update: The Mavericks lost their first game after acquiring SF Caron Butler and C Brendan Haywood from Washington, then won nine straight heading into Friday's home game against Sacramento. Second-leading scorer Jason Terry is out after fracturing the orbital bone surrounding his left eye on Wednesday. Dirk Nowitzki is averaging 25.2 points. This is the first meeting of the season between these teams. Last year, the Bulls beat the Mavs at home, then lost by 1 point in overtime at Dallas.
Next: Tuesday vs. Utah Jazz at the United Center, 7 p.m.