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Big time basketball made it easy to transition out of the football season on the Sunday after the Super Bowl. When I say "big time," I mean the NBA, of course, with a nationally televised day that began with the Celtics barely holding off the Heat; continued with the Magic's Dwight Howard single-handedly pulling his team away from the Lakers; and ended with Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City squad coming up short at Golden State.
The best part was that the Bulls had taken care of business the night before, rallying past the Hornets in New Orleans 97-88. So they could kick back and enjoy the teams immediately in front and behind them in the Eastern Conference standings pounding away at each other and some of the best of the West (the Los Angeles team that fell to third in its conference in the last week). And then they could cap it off with a classic Western Conference second half in which the Warriors' Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee out-gunned Durant and Russell Westbrook 100-94.
At the end of the weekend, the Bulls (36-16) stood third on their side of the ledger. They trail the Celtics (39-14) and the Heat (39-15) by tiny margins but have built up some distance between themselves and the Magic (35-21) and the Hawks (33-20).
More importantly, the home team has tons of stuff working in their favor going forward.
They have just about weathered the extended injury absence of Joakim Noah. There is a good chance he will be back in action shortly after this weekend's All-Star break. The most remarkable thing about the Bulls' success this season has been that they have achieved it despite significant infirmities suffered by two of their four primary assets (Noah and Carlos Boozer have both missed multiple months - although part of Boozer's absence was the preseason - with hand injuries).
They'll go into the break within a couple games of the top of the conference (better than anyone projected they would be) despite Noah and Boozer having played only eight games together. And while this sort of situation might cause concern in many instances because of re-integration issues, Noah and Boozer's games are so complementary it is hard to imagine that being a problem.
On defense, Noah will almost certainly dive right back in and provide powerful interior presence and emotional energy, i.e. his specialties. Boozer can do a lot of things but he will never be mistaken for an intimidating defensive presence. On offense, Noah does his best work from the high post while Boozer is crafty about creating position for himself down low and then finding ways to put up good shots with tons of touch.
The other big element working in the Bulls' favor is the schedule. On Saturday, they capped off their second extended, winning West Coast trip (they went 3-2 after finishing the late fall circus trip 4-3) and now look forward to a home-heavy slate featuring only one more road game against a Western Conference foe. They host the Bobcats and the sizzling San Antonio Spurs (by far the league's best record at 45-9) on Tuesday and Thursday and then cruise into the break.
Even All-Star snubs will probably work in the Bulls' favor. Both Luol Deng and Boozer were qualified for spots on the Eastern All-Star team and, before his injury, Noah seemed well on his way to a spot on the team backing up Howard. Now they'll all rest during the NBA's holiday weekend and I'm sure will return refreshed and reinvigorated (well, we certainly hope that will be the case - the key will probably be whether Boozer can avoid calamity - he injured himself during the preseason in a fall in his house, after all). Perhaps being left off the team will also provide a little extra motivation for the Bulls forwards going forward.
The primary reason for the Bulls' ascendance has been and will continue to be Derrick Rose. When United Center fans started serenading him with M-V-P chants early this season it seemed cute, an acknowledgement of a rare bit of self-promotion in the preseason that saw Rose, when asked about potential MVP candidates around the NBA this season, say something to the effect of "Why not me?"
At this point, though, it isn't difficult to make an argument that Rose is the favorite for the award. And his greatness is such a cool story, what with his South Side roots and the spectacular trajectory of his career. He led Simeon to two state titles, Memphis to the national championship game in his one season of college ball and then has put together two-and-a half amazing pro seasons.
No one expected Rose to lead the Bulls into contention for an NBA title for at least another couple seasons, but if this team keeps playing like it has - and even better with Noah back - the Bulls will have to be a big part of the conversation when people start predicting conference and even overall champs as the playoffs loom.
* * *
Meanwhile, the prominent local minor league squads (the college outfits, of course) who were in action on Sunday are struggling yet again. Northwestern was crushed at Penn State on Sunday (65-41) and - unless they improbably run the table at the Big Ten tournament in a few weeks - they will miss the Big Dance yet again.
This is Bill Carmody's 11th season at the helm up in Evanston and he still hasn't achieved the one thing he was hired to do - take Northwestern to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1949.
So what did the school do earlier this season when there was still a shred of optimism against long odds that the Wildcats would break through? The athletic department brass extended Carmody's contract. Isn't Northwestern supposed to be an elite educational institution run by at least slightly smarter than average folks?
Then there's Illinois, which seemed to lift up its season to stay with a big win on the road in the middle of the week (against Minnesota), only to fall back with a disappointing loss to Purdue at home on Sunday.
The Illini (16-9, 6-6) are still tied for fourth in the Big 10 and will secure a spot in the Dance with another couple regular season wins and a win or two at the conference tournament, but with seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale leading the way they were supposed to be better than this by now - a lot better.
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