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Without an extra gear, Bulls' heart and hustle won't be enough

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Joakim Noah and the Bulls fight hard.   (USATSI)
Joakim Noah and the Bulls fight hard every minute of every game. (USATSI)

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The Chicago Bulls are America's Team.

OK, maybe not.

But if the NFL fans who don't watch the NBA did watch the NBA, the Bulls could be America's Team.

The common complaints about the NBA don't apply to Chicago. They don't take games off. They don't have nights where they don't "have it." Their success isn't dictated by their star power nor the officials' reaction to it. They give everything they have on every play, and they win with a mixture of ferocity and discipline that most closely resembles some sort of militant society like Sparta.

The Bulls are not distracted by the nightlife, they don't complain about their coach, much less tune him out, and they never throw one another under the bus.

They are about as far from "Hollywood As Hell" as you're going to find.

All of this makes this Bulls team the most lovable group of overachievers since ... last season's Bulls. And they're headed for a playoff spot and the franchise's first opportunity to shock the world by showing that heart and hustle overcome talent since ... last season's Bulls.

You see where I'm going with this.

There is a balance to be found here. Load up on the compliments and accolades for this Bulls team's fight, and you fall into one of two categories: naive sycophant or condescending jackass. Focus too much on their weaknesses and you risk ignoring the simple truth that this team has kicked ass this season, with or without Derrick Rose. That gets lost. The conversation begins and ends with "and they're doing this without Derrick Rose!" when they're on pace for 44 wins after trading Luol Deng, but more importantly, just watch them play.

After losing Rose, a complete blowup was predicted, and the trade of Deng seemed to indicate that was on the horizon. But instead they've stuck together and Joakim Noah has become a legitimate superstar, which helps make this team dangerous.

On defense, they fight over screens like their first meal in days is beyond it. They rotate to deter penetration then back to contest a shot like they're part of some great robotic device. Noah is having a prolific season at center. He's the focal point of the offense and he's finding assists on a team that struggles to score. You can't ask anymore from the Bulls than what they've given.

And that's the issue.

Let me take you back to the Bulls' first run to the playoffs under Tom Thibodeau. Hot off a 62-win season, the Bulls took the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Many considered them to be better than the Heat that first season with the Triad in Miami. People remember the 4-1 loss to Miami, how the Bulls took Game 1 and looked unbeatable then were embarrassed in four consecutive losses. What they forget is that in a 4-1 series, the Pacers, then a scrappy young team with no superstar and no hope, gave the Bulls all they could handle game after game. They forget how close the Atlanta series was.

The Bulls' loss to the Sixers in 2012 is forgiveable in every context. You don't survive the shock of losing your MVP mid-series, no matter how bad the opponent is. And the 2013 Bulls took out the super-brand Brooklyn Nets with the same thing this team has: determination and fight. They wanted it more than the Nets did. Chicago has talent, but the intensity is better.

There is a pattern with the Bulls. The same thing that makes the Bulls so tough in the regular season, is the same thing that limits how hopeful you can get about this never-say-die team making a deep playoff run. They have no extra gear.

You see that gear in all the playoff teams. The defensive intensity jumps. Cuts are harder, shots are quicker, guys dive for loose balls. Indiana has been a great regular-season team (until the past month or so), but they haven't been nearly as good as when the postseason starts. And Miami doesn't look like it will when the second season hits.

The Bulls?

This is pretty much it. They may be a little better, but we know what the Bulls are. You're going to have to take the game because they won't beat themselves. But this goes further than star power, or lack of it. It's not only that Noah's not enough of an offensive weapon to carry a team. It's that the entire team has no higher gear to hit.

Thibodeau can't fire up the Bulls into a playoff frenzy because they take every game with rabid intensity. You need something to top what the opponent gives. And the Bulls already give that.

There's so much to admire their play after the Rose injury, so much good basketball (even if it isn't exactly watchable; the Bulls have never had an aesthetically pleasing approach under Thibs) to recognize. They can take out the Heat on Sunday and it won't be about the Heat sleeping through it or not caring. The Bulls can legitimately top them effort and intensity.

But there's no plot twist coming, unless Rose suddenly is able to suit up. (And everyone's done with that waiting game for a while.) We know what you're getting out of the Bulls.

The Bulls, and Noah in particular, want to make this season about more than just a nice showing, and an admirable run, but they've got to give more. The playoffs are defined by great players and great teams rising to the challenge. Unfortunately for these Bulls, that characteristic has been used up getting this far.

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