By Mike McGraw
The first half of the Bulls' season can be effectively summarized with a few numbers.
The story line goes like this: Their 27-8 record has to be considered a success when combined with the fact the projected starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has played together in just five of 35 games, and none since Jan. 4 at Detroit.
Does this group have what it takes to get past Miami in the playoffs? For now, we have no idea. But at least the Bulls are in contention, despite playing short-handed for the majority of the season.
As of Thursday morning, their record was third best in the NBA, just 1 loss behind Miami and Oklahoma City.
"All I know is with what we have this year, I don't think we've peaked yet," Noah said after Wednesday's 110-91 victory over Milwaukee. "We have to take it up another notch if we want to be a championship-caliber team."
Hamilton was the team's key acquisition, a veteran shooting guard with a long history of playoff success. He's the guy who is supposed to make it tougher for the Heat to key on Rose in the season's biggest games.
Hamilton has looked very good at times, both passing and shooting. But he has played in just 11 games because of a groin strain and thigh bruise.
The Bulls want him to take his time getting healthy and working his way into game shape. Hamilton should be ready to play after this weekend's all-star break or soon afterward.
Of course, more injuries could derail future plans. But it probably is accurate to suggest the Bulls haven't yet reached their peak.
"We want to be playing our best basketball at the end," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Defensively, there are a number of things we have to clean up. Offensively, I want to play at a quicker pace, and we have to do a better job of sustaining our spacing through the second and third option."
Rose, Deng and Thibodeau headed to Orlando by private jet Friday for all-star festivities. Rose will start at point guard and make his third straight all-star appearance. Deng was chosen as a reserve for the first time, while Thibodeau will coach the East stars.
There have been some good signs recently for the Bulls. The starting big men are playing better after slow starts. Noah has averaged 11.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in February, and he collected his first career triple-double against the Bucks on Wednesday. Boozer is averaging 19 points and shooting 58.1 percent over the last nine games.
The Bulls lead the league in assists and rebound percentage. They rank high in the key defensive categories: points allowed (third), defensive field-goal percentage (seventh) and blocked shots (fifth).
Their winning percentage of .771 is on pace to beat last season's performance, when they finished 62-20 (.756) and posted the NBA's best record in Thibodeau's first turn as an NBA head coach.
"I think we're more comfortable with our roles out there," Deng said. "Last year we were a new group coming together. I think this year coming into the year, everyone knows what's expected, what Coach is like, practices -- all that stuff helps you prepare for what's ahead.
The road ahead is a mixed bag. The Bulls will play more home games down the stretch but also face more quality opponents. Of the 31 remaining games, 18 are at the United Center and 19 are against teams that were .500 or better as of Thursday morning.
After the break, they'll host New Orleans on Tuesday, then depart for a three-game trip with stops in San Antonio, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The Bulls will play every Eastern contender on the road, along with the top two teams in the West, Oklahoma City and the Spurs. A six-game homestand in mid-March features all quality opponents.
Last year the Bulls did seem to peak toward the end of the season. They went 28-13 in first half, then 34-7 in second half.
The playoff run was derailed by a five-game loss to Miami in the conference finals. The Bulls won Game 1 by a wide margin, then dropped four straight.
Between the addition of Hamilton, another year of playing together and Rose learning from his first extended playoff run, the Bulls are hoping to take that next step.
For now, though, their playoff readiness is a great unknown. On the other hand, the Bulls can be glad that 27 of the 30 NBA teams are in worse shape.