The pressure is on in Chicago. Winter has come and gone and for the Windy City, it couldn't have ended soon enough. The Bulls were in a mediocre free-fall, once perching themselves second in the resurgent Eastern Conference, ready to pounce on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now floundering, currently sitting eighth in the conference, Chicago is dangerously close to falling too far and falling out of playoff contention. Chicago is 13.5 games back of first-place Cleveland, sitting at 33-32, recently coming off a 109-107 victory over the now second-seeded T0r0nt0 Raptors. The ninth-seeded Detroit Pistons are also 13.5 games back, sitting at 34-33. However, the Pistons, the seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers, and the sixth-seeded Charlotte Hornets are all playing some of the best basketball they have all season. The Bulls, on the other hand, aren't -- putting it quite bluntly.
Let's face it. The odds are stacked against Chicago. Injuries are once again ravaging the team, with all of Chicago's top-guys missing multiple stretches throughout the season, especially recently. Whether it be knee issues (as is the case with Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol), groin issues (as is the case with Derrick Rose), shoulder issues (as was the case with Joakim Noah), or overall illnesses (as is the case with Mike Dunleavy Jr.), the injuries are ravishing Chicago.
There is this motto that was instilled by former head coach Tom Thibodeau -- more than enough. There are some nights where it seems like they do have enough, like last night against the surging Raptors. No Dunleavy, no Rose, no Gasol, no problem? Okay, there was a slight problem down the stretch, with teammates seemingly tuning out the red-hot Doug McDermott. However, a victory is a victory, and the Bulls should take these victories however they can grab them.
Chicago is now heading into their most important stretch of the season. Their next seven games are against teams that are sub-.500, with four of those seven games at the United Center in Chicago, where the Bulls are 21-12 this season. These games are not to be taken lightly. The Bulls need to be on their A-game. They can't be satisfied by simply making the playoffs, that is, if they can even keep pace over the Pistons and tenth-place Washington.
Right now, Chicago is currently limping their way to a potential postseason berth. With Gasol confirmed to be missing the next few games due to swelling in his right knee and Dunleavy and Rose remaining questionable for their Wednesday night match-up against the Wizards, the Bulls will once again have odds stacked against them, with their backs against the wall. As former coach Thibodeau preached, next man up, a sentiment backed by current coach Fred Hoiberg.
Complacency is a flaw for Chicago, and it's shown throughout the season. Lackadaisical play on both sides of the ball has rendered Chicago to the level they are now, regardless of the injuries. They have to shape up their play and Hoiberg has to iron out his rotations (as in, when Rose becomes healthy again, don't let Aaron Brooks on the floor) in order to make a strong push and garner some momentum, momentum they haven't had since January. A big win with their backs against the wall against the Raptors, headlined by a stellar performance by McDermott and a phenomenal defensive stand by Jimmy Butler. Those gutsy, fight-it-out tooth-and-nail performances are what Chicago is going to need throughout the end of the season to make it to the postseason.
Just making it to the postseason shouldn't be enough though. Staying at the eight seed at likely drawing a first round match-up against the heavily favored Cavaliers, albeit the most interesting possibility for Chicago, would obviously not be ideal. No coach will ever come out and say that they are targeting a certain first round match-up. However, it has to be in the back of Hoiberg and the rest of the Bulls' minds that if they can draw Toronto in the first round, that would be their ideal match-up if they manage to make the playoffs. With the Raptors likely staying as the second seed, Chicago would have to leap the Pacers in the standings, who at 35-31, are 1.5 games ahead of Chicago. With their backs against the proverbial wall and the odds against them, the Bulls have an opportunity to garner some momentum and gain some steam heading into the postseason, or they have an opportunity to flounder into obscurity and miss the playoffs altogether.