By Mike McGraw
If anyone ever chronicles a list of Tom Thibodeau’s favorite sayings, this one would definitely make the cut:
“Things can change quickly in this league.”
Those words came to life this weekend. On Friday, a quiet gloominess hung over the Berto Center after the Bulls were blown out at home by Portland, on the heels of a controversial loss to Denver.
Even though missing the playoffs isn’t much of a danger, the Bulls had lost six of eight and were 5 games over .500, quite a drop from their season-high of 11 games over, last achieved Feb. 2.
But things did change quickly and the Bulls again proved, if nothing else, they are extremely resilient.
Without Joakim Noah, they avoided a season sweep against Indiana by winning Saturday at the United Center. Then with Marco Belinelli joining the injured list Sunday, the Bulls rolled to a fairly routine 104-97 victory at Minnesota.
They took Monday off and will await the history-seeking Miami Heat on Wednesday. The Heat will be trying to stretch its winning streak to 28 games, which would be five short of the NBA record of 33 in a row set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Blocking Miami’s path to American sports history is a nice motivation for the Bulls, but their primary objective is to get healthy and start playing consistently well.
What was interesting about the 2 weekend wins is that the Bulls got a nice spark from two lightly used players.
Veteran Nazr Mohammed started both games, averaging a respectable 7.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. Mohammed now has three starts this season and hasn’t played at all in 18 games.
Shooting guard Daequan Cook didn’t see the court against Denver and Portland, then sparked a surge early in the fourth quarter against Indiana.
He ended up leaving the game with about four minutes left because of a bruised thigh, the result of a running into a courtside photographer. Cook recovered to play 15 minutes at Minnesota.
With Belinelli out against the Timberwolves, Jimmy Butler stepped in at shooting guard and revived some of the heavy-minute success he had earlier this season, scoring 20 points while playing all but four minutes.
On one hand, the message seems to be for Thibodeau to trust his reserves, considering how Mohammed and Cook came through in the 2 wins. Belinelli had been struggling with an abdominal strain (11 total points, 4-for-13 shooting in the previous two games), so a switch to Butler was well-timed.
On the other hand, Luol Deng came back to life this weekend while collecting his usual lengthy playing time. He averaged 18.5 points and 7 rebounds in the 2 wins, but Thibodeau scoffed at the suggestion Deng played any better than usual.
“You can’t say enough about what Luol does for the team,” Thibodeau said after the Minnesota game. “He’s an incredible player — defense, making plays, keeping our team together, great leader. People look at, ‘Oh, he didn’t shoot the ball well in a game,’ like he’s not playing well.
“Well, that’s never the case with Luol because of all the other things he does out on the floor.”
It’s too soon to tell who might be back in the lineup against Miami on Wednesday. Noah (plantar fasciitis) and Belinelli are possibilities. The Derrick Rose watch drags on, but neither Rose nor Thibodeau suggested there is any deadline for him to come back this season.
As of Monday morning, the Bulls were just a half-game behind Atlanta for fifth place in the East — and they already have clinched the tiebreaker against the Hawks — and were just 2 games behind fourth-place Brooklyn in the loss column.
The Nets still have to play Portland, Denver and Utah on their West Coast trip.
With all the obstacles, things aren’t shaping up that badly for the Bulls, but it could all quickly change again.
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