The Bulls wrapped up the Circus Trip a very respectable 3-3, bringing their season mark to 6-5. Though that places them just fourth in their own division, 6-5 also happens to be the fourth best record in a surprisingly down Eastern Conference.
So how did the Bulls recover from an ugly 0-3 start to even the road trip mark at 3-3?
Mental Toughness. Friday night in San Antonio, playing in one of the most inhospitable arenas in the NBA, the Bulls kept their cool down the stretch as several calls and non-calls went the way of the home team, which is to be expected. While Scott Skiles voiced his frustration over a marginal three-second call (with an expletive-laced tirade clearly picked up by courtside microphones), his team maintained its focus. And as Tim Duncan set moving screen after moving screen in the fourth quarter, Bulls players left the griping to their head coach. With a firm understanding of the age-old dynamic of close calls going to the marquee teams and players (And Duncan, who, save for his free throw shooting, is a player without fault, and the Player of the 21st Century So Far, certainly qualifies as a marquee player. Besides, Duncan hasn't been called for a moving pick since his freshman year at Wake Forest.), the Bulls continued in a very business-like manner, clearing the defensive boards, and getting clutch contributions from their celebrated draft class of 2004: Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, and Chris Duhon. Which brings me to my next point...
Balanced Scoring. The San Antonio game witnessed an ice-in-the-veins Chris Duhon nailing monster pull-up threes, a slippery Luol Deng finding his way to the rim through a densely populated lane, and Ben Gordon, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, doing his best impersonation of, well, Ben Gordon. Add to that contributions from the markedly improved offense of Andres Nocioni, the bruising, albeit inconsistent low-post play of Michael Sweetney, and of course, the equally effective scoring and ball distribution of Kirk Hinrich, and Bulls box scores will, as they have during this mini-winning streak, continue to reveal a revolving cast of four, five, and six double-digit scorers each night.
Ability to 'Go Small.' The Bulls proved themselves a gritty bunch in the Lonestar State, certainly a reflection of their head coach. Forced by foul trouble to use a smaller lineup against the Spurs, the Bulls found a nice offensive rhythm, and despite giving up quite a bit a size, refused to flinch down the stretch, continually rebounding the ball with authority. In the second half of the Rockets game, the Bulls again went small, creating some offensive mismatches exploited through repeated pick-and-rolls.
What then does this mean as the Bulls wrap up the first month of the season?
Much like last season, the Bulls cannot just show up and expect the result to go in their favor. They will repeatedly find themselves in close games, and consequently must box out with a purpose, play sound team defense, take advantage of their roster depth, and find the hot shooter, wherever he may be.
The Bulls will get the occasional 25-30 point scoring night, most likely from Ben Gordon or Kirk Hinrich (and maybe even Michael Sweetney when the stars align just right). Counting on such contributions, however, would be foolish: The Bulls have talented players, but not a single extraordinary talent. This can be a serious liability in close games, as it is often unclear who should have the ball when the shot clock is winding down. Gone in Chicago are the days when Michael Jordan--among other things, the best security blanket in NBA history--roamed the court, taking control of games whenever the outcome was in doubt. What this Bulls team does have, though, is a number of players that can score in different ways, and that, when the opponent least expects it, can find their range and carry the team for a stretch. Emphasis on "for a stretch." While these Bulls do not have a clear go-to guy, they are (fairly) successfully employing basketball's version of the closer-by-committee approach. It was enough for them out west, and can and should be enough to keep the Bulls above .500 and in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.