By Mike McGraw
Thanks in large part to the circus' November occupation of the United Center, the Bulls usually experience their toughest test early in the schedule.
For whatever reason, their early schedule was not as challenging this season.
According to espn.com, the Bulls' strength of schedule ranked 25th in the league through Sunday, with an opponents' winning percentage of .476.
That's about to change. Saturday's win over New York was the first in a stretch of 10 straight games against teams that are near .500 or better, starting Tuesday when the Los Angeles Clippers visit the UC riding a six-game winning streak.
The Bulls visit Philadelphia, Memphis, New York, Atlanta and Indiana before the month ends.
The Bulls do have a few reasons to feel optimistic right now. They've won a season-high three in a row after knocking off the East-leading Knicks 93-85.
They'll be slightly closer to full strength. Kirk Hinrich returned to practice Monday and expects to play against the Clippers.
The Bulls played the second half against New York without Hinrich (left-elbow injury), Taj Gibson (ejection), Richard Hamilton (torn plantar fascia) and, of course, Derrick Rose.
Hinrich said he hyperextended the elbow during the first half but made a rapid recovery.
"It's doing much better and it's good news," Hinrich said Monday at the Berto Center. "It did all right today (in practice), so hopefully it will improve a little bit by tomorrow, because the last two days it improved a lot. I'm pretty confident that I'll go."
The other recent development is a sudden surge by shooting guard Marco Belinelli.
In the last three games Belinelli has averaged 20.3 points while shooting 48.8 percent from the field. He's also logged at least 40 minutes during all three of those contests.
"It's the NBA. You never know," Belinelli said. "Two weeks ago I didn't play in a game against Milwaukee (on Nov. 26). Now I'm starting and play a lot of minutes; we won some games. You have to be ready every time."
Belinelli joined the starting lineup last week when Hamilton went out with the foot injury.
In his first game as a starter, he scored just 6 points in a loss to Indiana. At that point Belinelli was averaging 5.1 points on the season and shooting 37.1 percent from the field.
Needless to say, the turnaround has been drastic.
"He's been in the league for a long time (six seasons)," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It's not like you were wondering, 'Well, can this guy shoot?' He's already shown that.
"I think it was just him getting more comfortable, him getting more minutes, and he's doing what he's always done."
Belinelli doesn't think there was any magic formula to breaking out of his slump. He didn't call some shot guru from his hometown of Bologna, Italy, and ask for help.
"Just work, work, work," he said. "I was so (ticked). That's normal, I think. I'm just working every day."
Getting the opportunity to start and play longer minutes obviously has helped, too. When he signed as a free agent this summer, Belinelli admitted playing for the Bulls was a dream come true.
He tried not to let a rough start spoil the situation.
"I really love to play like this," he said. "I love to play basketball. I love to play for this team. We play together. That's beautiful.
"It's great when (you're on) a team where nobody's selfish. We just play together. We pass the ball, we run, play good defense. Some guys open, we pass the ball. It's good for us, and I think it's good for the people to see."
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