Commentary

Still plenty of work left for Bulls

Celtics provide a playoff tuneup and a chance to tighten up the defense

Updated: April 7, 2011, 1:17 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- For the past three months, every question has been asked, every possibility discussed and disseminated.

[+] EnlargeLuol Deng
Jerry Lai/US PresswireWith five games left, Luol Deng says it's time for the Bulls to lock in for the playoffs.

So when Luol Deng begrudgingly met with reporters Wednesday afternoon at the Berto Center, he flashed a sly smile and said, "Every question you guys could've just answered, I'm sure."

He wasn't being a jerk, just speaking the truth.

What's left to ask? We know what this team can do, and what's at stake.

Well, there are things.

The Bulls (57-20) head into Thursday night's showdown with the Boston Celtics with a 3½-game cushion over Miami and three over Boston for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Chicago is within striking distance of San Antonio for the best record in the NBA.

Despite injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, Chicago has made it through the bulk of the season without losing more than two games in a row (and it's done that only four times). With everyone back, and Derrick Rose taking a vocal role, it doesn't seem likely to start now, even with some defensive blips. The Bulls certainly would like to even the season series with Boston at two games apiece, but it's not as if they're intimidated by the Big Brothers of the East.

"All our focus is on us and all the things we've got to get done right now," Deng said. "It's really all about us and not really what everyone else is saying. We've got five more games, and it's time to really lock in."

Deng is not just doing his best impression of Tom Thibodeau, either. The Bulls have a high standard that they're not reaching right now.

The past three games, the Bulls are 3-0, but they've given up 96, 106 and 94 points. In fact they've given up 90-plus in six of the past seven, a far cry from late February-early March when they held teams under 90 in 10 straight games. That stretch included two wins over Miami, one over Orlando and a split series versus Atlanta.

Chicago's defensive slide corresponds in part with Noah's ankle injury, which caused him to miss three straight games recently. Noah returned against Phoenix, but wasn't his usual self.

The Bulls had a 22-point lead on Phoenix on Tuesday, but had to sweat out the 97-94 win thanks to some classic chucking by Vince Carter. Rose was solemn after the game, because he knows the team isn't playing as well as it could be.

Chicago has been consistently at the top of team defense statistics this season, and is currently second in points allowed per game at 91.47 (Boston is first at 90.79) and first in opponents' field goal percentage at 43 percent.

But in the past 10 games, the Bulls are only ninth in opponents' points per game at 95.5 (Boston and Orlando are tied at first at 89) and sixth in field goal percentage at 45.1.

Still, pretty good, right?

Thibodeau requests a sub-90 point effort every night, and the players bought in months ago. Now, with everything set up for the Bulls to answer the lingering questions -- Can they really win the East? -- they need to remember what got them here.

"There's a lot of things we need to tighten up, we all know that," Deng said. "We're not panicking. Just the last few games, we've got to do a better job, especially in the second half. [Tuesday] we were kind of disappointed, being up by so many and letting that lead go."

The Celtics game gives them a chance to go into the home stretch with fewer questions, clearer heads and perhaps a few things to store away if they meet again in the Eastern Conference finals. Even without bruising center Kendrick Perkins -- a trade that Deng still seems surprised by -- the Celtics still have an earned reputation as the conference power.

"I think it's a good game for us that's coming at the right time," Deng said. "We're up three, they're right behind us. With the way we've been playing, teams like Boston and Miami, those are games that should bring out your best the whole game. You should play with a lot of intensity, and we need that right now."

Thibodeau has gained his players' respect with his attention to detail, and while he prepares for every game with the same alacrity, Deng said he sees an extra edge right now.

"If anything, he's more intense at this time," he said. "I think we all understand why. It was really easy at the beginning of the year. We didn't get any credit, so we really kind of played hard, a lot harder than we're playing right now and we've got to get back to that. So I think that's why he's more intense now, because he's trying to get us ready for that."

When it comes to player-media interaction, Thibodeau is on the lookout for potential distractions. Don't expect to see and hear the Bulls on every station and outlet, or throwing too many parties. Big Brother is certainly watching.

"You're always concerned," he said. "Right now you have to eliminate the distractions that can happen and maintain the habits you've already established. You don't want to change anything. If you're doing the right things every day, the results will take care of themselves."

The Bulls have done the right things all season. With five games left, and history on the horizon, we'll see if the preparation pays off when it really matters.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.