While most of the NBA’s teams have been dealing with a rash of injuries due to the condensed schedule, no one in the league is thriving despite the injuries quite like the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls have only had their starting lineup intact for 5 of their first 19 games, and yet they are off to a league best 16-3 start. The good times kept rolling on Monday night, as the Bulls dominated the New Jersey Nets from start to finish on their way to a 110-95 victory at the United Center. Luol Deng and Taj Gibson both sat out with injuries for Chicago, but as they have just about every night, the Bulls found a way to pick up the slack. Derrick Rose returned from a toe injury that kept him out of the past 4 games, and looked sharp while racking up 22 points and 8 assists. Rip Hamilton also put up 22 points and the Bulls had 6 players in double figures, and also set a season high with 33 assists as a team. Jordan Farmar paced the Nets with 22 points off the bench on 7-of-9 shooting and Deron Williams put up a double-double with 16 points and 10 assists. The victory was the 4th in a row for the Bulls, who also are now 8-0 at the United Center this season. The Nets are headed in the opposite direction as the loss drops them to 5-13 for the year
Ronnie Brewer got the Bulls jumpstarted early, scoring 7 of the team’s first 13 points. Chicago trailed just once all night at 4-3, and were up by as much as 14 before the end of the first quarter, and pretty much maintained a double-digit lead for the rest of the game. “We just got off to a slow start,” lamented Nets coach Avery Johnson. “They got out with good energy and we let them get too many points in the paint. They did a good job at both ends of the floor against us.” The big theme for the Bulls all night was showing off their balance and depth, as everyone who saw the floor made an impact. Joakim Noah came back from an ankle injury to put up 16 points and 10 boards, and even Brian Scalabrine gave the Bulls some solid minutes with 4 assists and 5 points that included a fancy reverse layup that really revved up the UC crowd. Coach Thibodeau has been really pleased with the way the team has played despite injuries, and said as much after the game: “It’s a testament to our guys, and I think we have the right guys. Whenever they’re called upon, they’re ready to go. They’re not here by accident. We feel they’re very talented and they all can play.”
Monday’s game was a special one for Rip Hamilton, and not just for the season-high 22 points and 10 assists that he tallied. The first basket Hamilton netted in the game gave him 15,000 career points, making him the 120th player of all time to hit that mark and just the 20th that is still active. When asked about the milestone, Rip commented that, “I think I owe it to all my great teammates that I’ve played with my whole career. It’s a great accomplishment.” Hamilton’s work ethic and unselfish play has made him an instant fit in Chicago, and it’s really showing through now that he’s healthy and on the court. The MVP certainly appreciates his presence out there. “Rip is a scoring machine,” commented D-Rose, “someone you have to respect when he’s on the floor. He passes better than me. He makes my job easier.”
As things come together for Chicago this season, there is a lot of championship buzz around this team. While Coach Thibodeau probably doesn’t want his players talking about winning it all just yet, the questions about how good this team can be are going to keep coming up as long as they keep winning. Brian Scalabrine did a nice job deflecting the question by simply answering, “We’re a good team, but we need to get better. We need to get better on offense and we need to get better on defense.” Rip Hamilton had a little bit more to say on the issue, commenting that, “Guys are very in tune to what Coach Thibs wants us to do. To be a great championship team everybody’s got to be on the same page, and since I got here, everyone’s been on the same page.” As long as these guys stay on that page, the Bulls will continue to run like a well-oiled machine, even on replacement parts.
Things are not running so smooth for the Nets. They are just as banged up as the Bulls, with starters Damion James and Brook Lopez both sidelined, and their second leading scorer MarShon Brooks a late scratch for Monday’s game. The difference for the Nets is that their backups aren’t doing what the Bulls reserves are with the extended minutes. New Jersey seems to be headed in the right direction with a lot of young talent, but they have a long way to go to become a dangerous team. They are likely in for plenty of growing pains as the season unfolds, just like the ones they experienced on Monday.
Chicago’s schedule gets a little tougher in the near future, and getting healthy will be a big key this week for the squad. The Bulls host a very dangerous Pacers team Wednesday and the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday before embarking on a 9-game road trip that starts out in Miami against the defending Eastern Conference champs. It would be a big lift to have Luol and Taj back in business by the time the team hits the road. I’m sure the Bulls have all the confidence in the world that they can win with a couple of missing pieces like they’ve been doing all year, but it’s always nice to be at full strength.