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SportsMonday: Bulls Take Midterm This Week

There was nothing wrong with the Bulls that a little luck couldn't cure. If they get a little more, they might just go into the All-Star break feeling slightly better about themselves than they have in over a month.

Okay, so it took a lot of luck for the Bulls to sweep their weekend trip to the Southeast with victories over the New Orleans Pelicans and the Orlando Magic. But the Bulls have had plenty of the other kind of fortune so far this season so they were clearly due for some breaks. And they benefited from about a half-dozen of them in the last 36 seconds early Sunday evening as they rallied from an ultra-late six-point deficit to eke out a one-point win.

Going forward, it is natural for everyone to set their sights on the Cleveland contest at home on Thursday, the team's last game before the break. The Cavaliers have been red-hot, winning 13 of their last 14.

But Tuesday's game against Sacramento will be more telling. Will the Bulls, led by inconsistent point guard Derrick Rose, fail to rise to the occasion again against a team they perceive as inferior? So far this season the Bulls have been extraordinary in only one way: their ability to play down to the level of competition in game after game after game. And many of the worst of those games have been played at the United Center.

The Kings contest is the ultimate trap. Not only has Sacramento struggled mightily to compete on most nights this season but it will also be the Bulls' first game at home after a long road trip. The Kings are also in the midst of off-court drama. George Karl was reportedly in talks with the team over the weekend to take over as coach. Some reports had Karl's hiring was being held up because star center DeMarcus Cousins had raised objections. Stay tuned.

Sounds like a team ripe for the picking, eh? Then again, the Kings posted a thrilling victory of their own on Sunday with Cousins tossing in a buzzer-beater to beat Phoenix.

And even during the Michael Jordan era, the home team always struggled in the first game back after an extended run on the road. But the big difference was that back then when the Bulls were struggling, they would almost always find a way to turn up the defensive pressure late and Jordan would take over at the offensive end. Many was the night when no one else was scoring efficiently but Jordan's clutch production and team defense would add up to a win.

So far this season, Derrick Rose has made clutch shots in several situations. But he hasn't seemed able to spark surges at the defensive end.

Finally, there is the question of whether any of this matters at all in the end. Sunday's victory left the Bulls with a 32-20 record, good for a tie with the Washington Wizards for third in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers lurk all of a game back in the loss column.
So the Bulls have played just well enough to be in position to claim home-court advantage at least in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today.

The main focus has been being ultra-careful with injuries, except of course with the ones suffered by Joakim Noah. Where players other than Noah may have pushed to return to the court before they were completely healthy in previous years, the Bulls have clearly made it their first priority this season to hold guys out, and maybe more importantly to limit them at practice, when they have suffered even the whisper of an injury.

The point is clearly to eventually marshal the forces for a final push to the playoffs and to be in the best possible shape heading into the postseason.

The exception to this is, of course, Noah, who always wants to come back from injuries as quickly as possible no matter how much another week or two off might help. And the guess here is that Noah has earned so much respect from the Bulls for his determination, toughness and dedication to the team that they give him free reign to decide whether he plays or not.

He'll probably have the first crack at Cousins on Tuesday night. Maybe he can slow the emerging center (one of the five best in the league at this point) and the Bulls can take an early lead on the Kings and limit their confidence. But it probably won't happen. And the Bulls will probably be looking to Rose for leadership in the end of the game and, eventually, as the end of the regular season.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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