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SportsMonday: Mediocre Bulls Just Starting

Any win on the road is a good win, a Bulls fan tells himself.

Even one like Sunday's against a Laker team that wasn't that good to begin with this season and then added and lost Kobe Bryant to injury a month-and-a-half ago and has done without Pau Gasol for its last four games.

Actually, despite a difficult fourth quarter, this win was better than good because it brought the Bulls back to break even. And that will do just fine for now.

The Bulls wrapped up their latest extended West Coast road trip in the same place they started it - right at good ol' .500. They went 3-3 as they traveled from San Antonio to New Orleans to California (Sacramento) to Phoenix and then back to California (Oakland and L.A.) to wrap it up. The team is 25-25 overall.

For now, Jerry Reinsdorf has it just right. In his most recent extended interview, the forever chairman of the franchise pronounced this year's Bulls a "mediocre team" and they are exactly that. But hope for continued improvement springs eternal for this hard-working group.

The team departs the road and pushes forward with a schedule featuring more games at home than otherwise the rest of the way. They will have a great chance to get a little something started and a little something will be all that is needed to claim third in the weak Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season.

Speaking of which, one of the leading contenders for bronze-medal status in the Eastern Conference is the Hawks, who come to the United Center on Tuesday. At the end of play Sunday, Atlanta (25-24) was fourth, a half-game behind Toronto. The Bulls (25-25) stood another half-game further back, tied with Washington.

The home team has now played 27 of their 50 games on the road. They have played fewer home games than anyone in the conference except Toronto.

Individually, D.J. Augustin continues to impress. He made the single biggest play of the game in the final minute on Sunday when the Lakers were threatening to turn what had been a 19-point Bulls lead in the third quarter into a one-possession game. Augustin rallied after he was picked off the Lakers' Steve Blake and scrambled to tip away and then secure a pass headed to Chris Kaman. Kaman was the reason the Lakers were in the game at all, piling up 27 points.

Kaman was especially good late as Joakim Noah had to play it carefully after picking up his fifth foul with almost seven minutes remaining.

As it so often does, the Bulls offense ground to a near halt in the fourth quarter. But Noah hit a huge jumper and a driving dunk, Kirk Hinrich capped off a 7-for-13 shooting night with a large three-pointer midway through the third and Augustin hit four straight free throws in the final minute. It was all barely enough.

The individual story of the trip, however, was the ever-improving Taj Gibson. Of late, coach Tom Thibodeau has consistently referred to the power forward out of USC as the Bulls "best practice player" and we all know the coach is incapable of delivering higher praise.

Gibson's good work in the low post early got the Bulls off to a double-digit lead in the first quarter and while the Lakers rallied to shrink the lead late in the second quarter and throughout the fourth, the Bulls never gave it up. It is clear to everyone but starting power forward Carlos Boozer that Gibson has passed Boozer by on the offensive end. And everyone already knew that Gibson was light years ahead on D.

Boozer complained early last week that he shouldn't always be on the bench in the fourth quarter watching Gibson close out games. Thibodeau responded that not only would Gibson continue to finish games, he probably should be starting them.

The Bulls hope they have started something with the first 50 games of the season. There are plenty of reasons to believe they will finish a successful regular season (third in the Eastern Conference would have to qualify as such with even the most jaded local basketball fan) even with Derrick Rose sidelined.

The talk all last week was about whether the Bulls should clear the decks in the off-season to make a run at almost sure-to-be free agent Carmelo Anthony. The team better take a careful look at the many good things it has down the stretch of this season before it does any such thing.

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

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