CHICAGO — Lose a franchise player, trade away another star. Snag home-court advantage for at least one round in the playoffs?
It’s not the way the Chicago Bulls mapped it out at the start of the season. But here they are, holding the fourth seed and hosting John Wall and the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of their first-round series Sunday after going 48-34.
They lead the Eastern Conference with 36 wins since Jan. 1 even though they don’t have a player averaging 15 points, and they came together right when they looked as though they might be ripe for a meltdown.
That’s not bad considering Derrick Rose’s derailed comeback and the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland. But it wasn’t quite the leap that the Bulls envisioned making this season, either.
They came in with soaring expectations, hoping to challenge LeBron James and the Miami Heat for supremacy in the East, with Rose back after missing all of last season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Instead, the former MVP’s comeback got short-circuited in his 10th game by another knee injury. He tore the right meniscus at Portland in November, and the Bulls ruled him out for the rest of the season.
As if losing their superstar again wasn’t a big enough blow, they traded Deng and his expiring contract to Cleveland after negotiations on a new deal went nowhere. The move came with Chicago at 14-18 after back-to-back wins, and to many, it looked as though it was made with an eye toward the lottery.
Instead, the Bulls dug in.
They clinched home-court advantage in the first round and made a push for 50 wins even though they averaged 93.7 points and shot 43.2 percent, both league lows. They had to get used to playing with Rose again and without him — again. They had to shake off the Deng trade.
“The thing is, there was going to be a period of adjustment even if we had Derrick,” said coach Tom Thibodeau. “And the Luol piece was a big piece.”
Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler were banged up early in the season, too. But look at the Bulls now.
Noah averaged career highs in points (12.6), rebounds (11.3) and assists (5.4) while posting four triple-doubles.
Taj Gibson emerged as a strong Sixth Man of the Year candidate, averaging a career-high 13 points and 6.8 rebounds. And guard D.J. Augustin paid big dividends, averaging 14.9 points in 61 games with the Bulls after being waived by Toronto.
Not counting Deng (19 points) and Rose (15.9), that made him Chicago’s leading scorer. By comparison, every other team had at least one player score more per game.
Yet the Bulls are as hot as any team heading into the playoffs.
“Eighty-two games is over,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of work went into that. I think our players responded well, but it’s over and a lot of work went into it. We have a great opportunity and now it’s up to us to make the most of that opportunity.”
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