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Chicago Still Has A Bulls-Eye On The East Contenders

Before the season started, I wrote how I thought the Bulls were ready to make the leap. Let’s just say the readers didn’t really agree. The “leap” is the next step that good teams take to become great. Actors also make the leap. For instance, Mila Kunis just recently made the leap with her role in The Black Swan, along with Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and The Rock in Faster. (Kidding about the last one.) Well, the Bulls officially made the leap. With Derrick Rose‘s MVP-caliber season underway, as well as a front office all-in on the “our time is now” belief, the Bulls have elevated themselves into the elite.

I’d like to start with the front office because I don’t think enough has been said about the Bulls’ offseason acquisitions. Naturally, the signing of Carlos Boozer, the prize of their 2010 free agent class, was pushed under the rug with Amar’e going to New York and all the hoopla that took place down in Miami. But the signing of Boozer was more than just an upgrade at the power forward position.

Boozer improved the Bulls’ interior scoring with his versatile high/low post game, but also in the non statistical “toughness” category. He has helped transform the face of this franchise, morphing them into a more physical, imposing team. A lot like in The Mighty Ducks when Gordon Bombay convinced Fulton, the enforcer and slap shot specialist, to join the squad. Moves like this can have a lasting impression on a franchise, changing the face of the team, giving them an identity and newfound confidence. And don’t sleep on this “toughness” idea. Every championship team has been tough. No team that regularly got pushed around and beat up has ever won a title. It just doesn’t work that way.

Rose has been nothing short of spectacular this year, but that story has been beaten like a dead horse. I want to talk about the future. The playoffs. I don’t know about you, but if I’m Boston or Miami, I don’t want anything to do with Chicago come April. At 23-4, the Bulls have the second best home record in the NBA. This coupled with a rejuvenated fan base, and you have one hell of a place to play.

But what I like so much about the Bulls is their versatility. The Bulls are one of the few teams in the NBA that have the ability to play effectively in the halfcourt, as well as in the fast break. They can slow it down, grind out each possession and beat you in the 70s and 80s, or they can run with you and put up 100-plus. But that’s just on offense. The Bulls rank second, behind only Boston in terms of points allowed per game at 92.3. They’re also second in opponents’ field goal percentage, third in opponents’ three point percentage, and third in opponents’ field goals made. That’s four of the most prominent defensive categories in the game, and the Bulls are in the top three in each.

A lot of the defensive success comes from head coach Tom Thibodeau, who along with Boozer, has helped change the culture in the Windy City. But back to the playoffs. As we all know, the playoffs are about the bigs. The team who can control the paint, dominate the boards, and protect the basket is usually going to win. The Lakers last year with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum did the best job of controlling the paint. As a result, they beat the Celtics in Game 7 and walked away with an NBA Championship.

I see the Bulls as a team built for the playoffs, built for rebounding, shot blocking and controlling the paint. At 36-16, the Bulls have managed the fifth best record in the NBA, and never once have they had a completely healthy roster. Boozer and Joakim Noah have yet to really play with each other and Taj Gibson has battled injuries all year. 36-16 with a combined 45 games missed between Noah and Boozer seems pretty impressive to me.

Come April, when everyone is healthy (hopefully), the Bulls are going to be a tough team to beat. Don’t be surprised if Chicago knocks off Miami or Boston and we see this storied franchise back in the NBA Finals.

What do you think?

Follow Scott on Twitter at @scott_horlbeck.

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