Be cautiously optimistic about Bulls
Chicago's rout of Raptors on Sunday isn't necessarily a sign of things to come
How tempting it would be to say the Bulls' one-sided victory over the Raptors in Toronto Sunday night is a harbinger of good things to come.
But then these are the Bulls we're talking about, and this season the norm has been anything but normal.
The Bulls, now a game up on the Raptors with guardianship of the coveted if not especially prestigious eighth playoff spot in the conference, finish the season this week with a home-away, back-to-back against Boston and Charlotte on Tuesday and Wednesday, two teams a combined 25 games above .500.
Toronto, which still holds the tiebreaker against the Bulls, plays at Detroit on Monday and hosts the Knicks on Wednesday, two teams a combined 51 games below .500.
Raise your hand if the Bulls still falling short of the playoffs would shock you.
And why do I feel like I'm suddenly watching another bad re-make of "Major League" in which Charlie Sheen and his band of misfits make the playoffs in spite of the club owner, who wants the team to lose so she can blow it up and move to Miami?
I mean, no one can duplicate the genius of the 1989 classic.
But more to the point, after Bulls general manager Gar Forman gave his head coach the impression that he was restricting Joakim Noah's minutes for Friday night's game against New Jersey, and then tossed Vinny Del Negro under the bus and drove it over him by stating on the record that Noah was indeed cleared to play, you were left with the sneaking impression that all concerned have slightly different agendas.
Noah, who has missed 10 games with plantar fasciitis, played 12 seconds in the final two overtimes of a damaging loss, the Bulls' second of the season against the woeful Nets. And there are some who are wondering if Bulls management would rather Del Negro not look too good on his way to being fired.
All indications are that it won't matter if Vinny suits up and pumps in 30 himself to lead the Bulls past the Cavs in a first-round match-up. His fate was sealed before New Year's and it has been nothing but awkward since then.
But team dysfunction is never attractive. And In this case, we are freer than ever to speculate to our heart's content. For example, did Del Negro hold out Noah in the guise of following his bosses' orders in a symbolic middle-finger salute to Forman and John Paxson?
That would not be typical of Del Negro's personality. And he did, after all, receive a figurative wrist slap for playing Noah about 10 minutes longer than he was supposed to in an overtime victory over Portland on Feb. 26 -- after which Noah missed the next 10 games.
It was also reported by the Tribune that Bulls management was not pleased that Del Negro played Noah two more minutes than he was authorized to play in a March 30 game against Phoenix.
What was weird Friday was that there would be any confusion at all with the postseason in jeopardy, only a week to go in the regular season and Del Negro perplexed to the extent that he was afraid to play Noah for even a few more minutes when clearly they are unable to win without him.
With all due respect to Noah, he's not exactly Michael Jordan, who was briefly restricted from playing by Bulls management while he was recovering from a broken foot in his second season with the club. And plantar fasciitis is not thought to put Noah's career in jeopardy as team doctors told the Bulls about Jordan back then.
And obviously all of this was the case as Forman, in full butt-covering mode, wanted to make it clear that Noah was not under any restrictions.
To Del Negro's credit, he has seemingly handled this season from hell incredibly well, even as his fate rather oddly became a national story. And his players, even against a Chris Bosh-less Raptors' team, sure did not look like a group ready to pack it in and send their coach packing Sunday night in Toronto.
Noah came up just short of what would have been his first career triple-double with 18 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists in the Bulls' eight win in 12 games since he returned from the foot injury.
Derrick Rose finished with 26.
"It's been up and down but as long as it's up, we're just got to keep it up here," Rose said. "We've got two games left and we've got to play every game like it's our last."
This might even be kind of fun if we knew what to root for.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.