The NBA is a traditionally a league of steps, where young teams develop over time and often learn first by losing.
The Bulls lost in the first round the last two seasons and finally took a step up when they beat Indiana.
Contact information ( * required )
Now, they've jumped another rung with a series victory over Atlanta, finishing the Hawks in six games with a 93-73 destruction Thursday night that wasn't nearly as close as the score might suggest.
But this is when the real fun begins, and while Derrick Rose called Thursday night's closer against the Hawks the biggest game of their lives, the Bulls will face another one Sunday when they begin the Eastern Conference finals at home against Miami.
That will be the biggest game of their lives -- until Game 2.
"Yeah, you hope emotionally they start to understand the ups and downs of the playoffs and that every game is big, but also just another game this time of year," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "I love this time of year because you've put so much into the season that now you get the reward.
"When the going gets tough, just do your job and it takes care of itself. Prepare well, practice well and you've done all you can do, so you should not feel any pressure."
The Bulls didn't seem to feel any Thursday night and now all the pressure shifts to Miami, a self-inflicted wound from a bizarre summer of signings and parades before the wild preseason predictions that had the Heat traveling well past a berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
Though Thibodeau won't allow the Bulls much time basking in the glow, Miami celebrated the defeat of the ancient Celtics -- with a one-armed point guard -- as though they'd won the NBA championship.
It was at the very least an odd scene in Miami after the Heat finished off Boston, with talk of having climbed mountains, when they were merely in the foothills of the postseason.
They spoke of being overcome by emotion having discharged their nemesis, in stark contrast to the NBA's top seed, whose players strolled off the court Thursday night as though they'd won a game against Toronto on any Tuesday in January.
Maybe the Heat will be slow starting the semis as they search to regain their inspiration, or perhaps they know something no one else does.
So are Miami's 2½ men better than the Bulls' MVP?
They certainly were not during the regular season when the Bulls swept the Heat, but this is an entirely different season and Miami is playing much better at both ends of the court, and especially on defense.
But the Bulls played their best defensive game of the playoffs Thursday, holding Atlanta to 73 points on 36 percent shooting.
They came out with a ferocity not seen in weeks, as though they had a purpose, which was obviously to end this series and get on with serious business.
The Bulls' starting frontcourt shot 14 of 20 in the first half and 21 of 37 (57 percent) in the game, with Carlos Boozer (23 points, 10 rebounds) looking like the star they thought they signed last summer.
At this point, and after that performance, the Bulls are a much better "team" than Miami, and their bench has reappeared in the last couple games.
You look ahead and know Rose is going to devour the Miami point guards for dinner, meaning Dwyane Wade will be forced to guard Rose.
That extra effort is going tax Wade, sapping his energy and leading to foul trouble, while putting even more pressure on LeBron James offensively.
It should be a heck of a series, but what seems clear is that Miami will only improve in the off-season and the Bulls might not find a better chance to reach the NBA Finals in the next few years than they possess right now.
Still, it's Miami that's supposed to win, and the Bulls arrive off their best game in months, owning a very serious belief in their coach, and entirely secure in what they do.
It says here, Bulls in seven.
• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.