By Mike McGraw
Before departing for San Antonio on Wednesday, the Bulls had played the softest schedule in the league, based on opponents' winning percentage and according to espn.com.
That fact should come as no surprise to fans who have watched the team roll over weaker competition without a full contingent of players.
Returning from the all-star break, the Bulls on Wednesday finally trotted out a starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for the first time since Jan. 4.
Now that the Bulls have a healthy roster, it's time to find out if they're still one of the NBA's elite teams. Over a 12-game stretch, they'll see nine teams that had .500 records or better as of Thursday morning.
The journey got off to a good start against the Spurs. The Bulls used 29 points from Derrick Rose and a series of clutch shots down the stretch to pull out a 96-89 victory.
San Antonio had been the league's hottest team, winning 12 of 13 games before the break, and the Bulls appreciated the victory.
"It was like a playoff atmosphere where their goal is the same as ours, and that's to win a championship," Rose told reporters after the contest. "Do whatever it takes. That's what I tried to do out there, do whatever it takes to win that game.
"Right when we came in, we knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. When you come in, it's like a playoff atmosphere. … You could tell that -- you never know, this matchup can be in the Finals or wherever -- so just try to play hard against them."
The next stop on this three-game road trip is Friday in Cleveland, where the Bulls have to be wary of a vengeful opponent. The Bulls rolled over the Cavaliers by 39 points on the first visit to Cleveland this season Jan. 20.
After that, the Bulls will see two potential playoff opponents, Philadelphia and Indiana, on consecutive days. Later this month is a six-game homestand featuring opponents such as Orlando, Miami, Philadelphia and Jeremy Lin.
To have continued success during this tougher stretch of schedule, the Bulls need to follow a few simple guidelines:
•Keep Rose healthy: The San Antonio game was a classic Rose performance. Matched up against one of the league's best point guards, Rose outscored Tony Parker 29-11. The league MVP doesn't lose many battles with his peers.
"Every point guard I'm playing against, it's fun," Rose said after the game. "I love the challenge."
So far Rose seems to have gotten past those back spasms that kept him out of five games before the break. He was shaken up in Wednesday's game after knocking knees with Parker, but he recovered quickly.
•Get Hamilton up to speed: Richard Hamilton says he's feeling healthy after a monthlong layoff, but he has been rusty on the court, hitting 1 of 8 shots for 2 points against the Spurs.
He hasn't played a lot, but Hamilton looked like a strong addition at times this season. The question is when he can return to form and whether he can keep it up through the playoffs.
•Get the bench out: Putting a healthier Hamilton in the starting lineup means Ronnie Brewer can go back to playing with the Bench Mob. The reserves were one of the biggest strengths last season.
With the bench finally back to its usual self Wednesday, it produced 37 points against the Spurs. C.J. Watson led the way with 12 points, while Brewer and Kyle Korver scored 8 each and Taj Gibson added 7.
With a 29-8 record, the Bulls are ahead of last year's 62-win pace. They seem like one of the NBA's best teams, but it will take the full lineup getting through the tougher schedule without a stumble before we can be certain.