ATLANTA -- By the time LeBron James announced his "Decision" that he was going to the Miami Heat to join forces with All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Chicago Bulls had become an NBA afterthought. They'd been rejected by the hometown kid, Wade, and by arguably the best player in the game, James. There were more people sending condolences to the Bulls than predicting they'd reach the conference finals within 10 months.
Fortunately for the franchise, Gar Forman, the team's general manager, wasn't wallowing in pity.
"There was no time for despair," Forman recalled Thursday night, "because while it was unlike any free-agent class in league history there were also more teams with money than there were players to give it to. We had Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D lined up. We knew we'd improve our team. There was no time to feel sorry because we had to move to the next plan and the next guy."
So, while Miami celebrated the union of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, the Bulls almost completely without fanfare added Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas, Keith Bogans and a Turkish center named Omer Asik. Boozer was the only All-Star of the group, and they'd all be playing for a rookie head coach. Yet, one night after Miami stormed the Boston Celtics to reach the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls joined them.
The clinching victory, a 20-point bulldozing of the Atlanta Hawks, was a demonstration of everything the Bulls have come to believe will allow them to beat anybody in the NBA, even Miami. They held a team playing at home to 36.5 percent shooting, limiting Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, the two players who absolutely have to score for Atlanta to win, to 9-for-28-shooting and a total of 27 points.
The Bulls never allowed Atlanta to hold the lead, not for a single possession, and until garbage time the Hawks had failed to score six straight points at any time during the game. Meanwhile, on offense, where the Bulls aren't exactly artists, they shared the ball to the tune of 34 assists (compared to Atlanta's 14).
Hubie Brown, the ESPN analyst and former coach who is circumspect with praise, said in the closing moments of Game 6 that the Bulls had engaged in "team play at its maximum."
Certainly, the Bulls have struggled at times in these playoffs, first with Indiana and then with Atlanta, a No. 8 seed and a chronic underachiever, respectively. But the Bulls, as much as Miami, continue to be a work in progress, and without players as decorated as Wade and LeBron.
I asked Jack Ramsay, the ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame coach whose Trail Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977, if it's too much to expect these Bulls to go from no playoff series won to any more than two, which is how many they have now. Ramsay shook his head and said, "My Portland team had never even been to the playoffs before winning the championship. That team grew in the playoffs. This Bulls team is growing through the playoffs, too. ... You can see it."
One of the reasons, of course, is coach Tom Thibodeau, a man who like most good NBA coaches is undervalued. Dennis Scott, the former NBA player and now an analyst for NBA TV, pointed to one decision Thibodeau made in the fourth quarter of Game 5 Tuesday night in Chicago that explains a ton about the Bulls and how they've gotten this far.
When his reserves increased the lead in the critical Game 5, Thibodeau left Boozer and Joakim Noah on the bench and let Taj Gibson, Asik and Brewer play the entire fourth quarter. Most coaches, particularly a rookie coach, Scott reminded me, would have gone the safe rout and put the starters back in. Thibs didn't. He stayed with his conviction and in the process almost certainly affected two games, 5 and 6.
He drove a point home to Noah and Boozer, that only Rose is irreplaceable on this team, and they responded. Noah, though he was in foul trouble and played only 27 minutes, hit five of seven shots and blocked three Atlanta shots in Game 6. Boozer had his best game in weeks, making 10 of a team-high 16 shots and scoring 23 to go with a team-high 10 rebounds.
The bench players know with this coach they can earn their keep, which is critical if he's going to ask them to do so much of the thankless work. And the starters other than Rose, who never needs prodding, know if they don't produce they can watch even in crunch time from the bench.
Thibodeau knew he was getting a team with a superstar in Rose, a player of uncommon versatility in Luol Deng and a rookie with a combination of intelligence and defensive curiosity in Gibson. The rest knew how to contribute when called upon, to commit blindly and passionately to defense, and all the while play harder than any opponent. Sounds corny, but that's the formula. The defense, the rebounding, the playing harder than the other guy ... the Bulls have that down pat, and reminded Atlanta of it in Games 5 and 6.
Offensive balance is the weakness, but if the Bulls can have more nights like this, when Boozer takes 16 shots, when Deng and Rose each takes 14, when Korver, Gibson and Noah each take seven, Miami is going to have a difficult time defending. But doing this against an opponent as talented as Miami is no given. As Rose said afterward, "We're in a place where we haven't been."
But the Bulls head to the conference finals as underdogs, a position that surely fits their individual and collective personalities better than playing as the favorite, which has to be learned over time. Since the night of July 8 when LeBron spurned the Bulls to take his talents to South Beach, the Bulls have been trying to show they're worthy.
The early handicapping of the league had Miami and Boston in the conference finals ahead of the Bulls. A great many prognostications had the Bulls finishing as far down as fifth in the conference, behind the Celtics, Heat, Magic and even the Bucks or Hawks.
Noah, whose influence is not to be underrated, snarls at those kinds of things. Every team with aspirations needs a guy who will stick his finger in somebody's chest and say, "You didn't think we could ... " Noah is that guy on the Bulls and his personality is infectious.
The Bulls go happily into the conference finals as underdogs and with attributes that will make Miami struggle. For starters, the Bulls play defense like the Celtics used to. While nobody is going to make a living shutting down LeBron or Wade, the simple fact is in the two games these teams had their players, Deng demonstrated he is up to the task of trying to guard LeBron and Bogans demonstrated he is up to the task of trying to guard Wade. Bosh is going to have to deal with, at various points, Noah, 7-foot Asik and tricky Thomas.
With some starts and stops along the way, the Bulls figured out how to take advantage of these resources against the Pacers and Hawks. Now, with great resistance coming from a stacked opponent whose stars told the Bulls over the summer, "Thanks but no thanks, we'll win our championships elsewhere," we'll not only see what they've learned but whether they can apply what they've learned four times in a series.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.