- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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"If the Celtics are healthy going into the playoffs, I'd be very surprised; can't see that happening. Orlando has not looked good all year long; they aren't the same team they were last year. And I think that even though Cleveland beat them last year in the playoffs, with the addition of Jamal Crawford the Hawks just might have the Cavs' number. That said -- and don't be shocked if it happens -- the Atlanta Hawks will win the East."
-- Scoop Jackson on 710AM ESPN Radio, Jan. 18, 2010
I've never been a big believer in statement games. Especially in the NBA. Especially before the All-Star break or the trading deadline. Not that those games are meaningless; but with more than a third of a season left and last-minute front office movements still to be made to get teams "playoff ready," it's impossible to take games such as the one the Bulls are about to play against Atlanta on Friday at more than face value.
It's just another W or L. Simple as that.
But for the Bulls, this game is the exception to that rule. After they'd gone on the road to string together five straight wins (all against teams with winning records), it seemed like they'd finally hit that stride. After they'd held down the No. 2 spot in the Central Division, it seemed like Bulls fans, for the first time this season, could believe.. But then they turn around and do things no self-respecting, overachieving, possible conference-championship-contending team is supposed to do: Lose two games in a row to teams that aren't on their level.
Coming home and losing to the Clippers and then losing on the road to the 14-games-under-.500 76ers? When Baron Davis, the Clippers' franchise player, had one of the worst games of his career? (Looked like a 20-point loss, even though the final score said eight.) When the 76ers' Allen Iverson missed the game to attend to a family issue?
Not a confidence-builder. In fact, it ignites the exact opposite emotion.
Now comes Atlanta. That team, the one team the Bulls aren't supposed to beat but now need to. This game will tell us everything we need to know, and everything we are afraid to admit. Which is why the Atlanta game is the season's most important so far for the Bulls. The outcome will send a message and set the stage. It'll be, for the Bulls, their Groundhog Day. If they win, then we know that winter will soon end and we can start thinking spring, as in playoffs. Even if for the rest of the season the Bulls don't play up to expectations, a win in this game will let it be known that, come playoff time, they'll have the ability to take it back to that Feb. 5 level and bring the pain to whichever team they happen to be facing in the first round and beyond.
If they lose? It's 10 more weeks of winter. Time to start thinking about the 2010 free-agent market, lottery picks, possible trades and evaluations of what went wrong. And the shadow they'll see won't be their own. It'll be the shadows of the people who make up the team's fan base in Chicago, and they will haunt this team until it gets its (fill in the blank) together.
Basically, they'll be sharing the same shadow that has kept the Bears and the Cubs out of the light over the past couple of years.
From WHPK radio host and Bulls historian Mario Smith: "The Bulls are exactly what they were last year: mediocre at best. Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are the real future of the team; and if they can get those two a real coach, the team'll be fine."
Smith continues: "And if they don't get a new coach, I don't think anyone in that 2010 free-agent extravaganza will come here."
Which is why Atlanta is the new litmus test. The Bulls beat the Hawks, and Del Negro's job is secure and future free agents will look at him and the team differently. (Are you listening, Amare Stoudemire?)
It's the difference between making that historic five-game road win streak meaningless by losing three in a row, and making an Eastern Conference championship-caliber squad not want to see you in a seven-game series.
True, the Bulls have the Miami Heat on Saturday and the Orlando Magic next Wednesday; but right now, Atlanta is the team that everybody in the East has to go through to get to their promised land. Yes, the Cavs remain the team to beat; but if there was anything to be learned from last season, it's this: Never underestimate a team that has all of the pieces in place and nothing to lose. Last seasonr, that team was the Magic. This season, it's the Hawks. And if the Bulls show and prove against them tonight, Chicago fans will finally have the one thing we (objectivity removed) have been searching for all season long: clarity.
Now, of course, they have an excuse if they lose: Noah was just shut down (officially, through the All-Star break). But if they are who we think they think they are, they'll use that as the motivating factor to leave the Hawks with something to think about. And something for us to look forward to.
Because regardless of how the rest of the season goes, this truly could be the game in which the season for the Bulls is won or lost.
The game when a statement was finally made.
Or when things just got mad silent.
It may be February, but the Bulls need to make a statement.