The Bulls have survived the losses of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng to put themselves in contention for more serious consideration as Eastern Conference playoff contenders. Now we’ll see if they’re ready for that next level.
There might not be a better team in the NBA at scratching, clawing, fighting and willing themselves to victory than coach Tom Thibodeau’s latest overachieving edition. But most of that work is done as underdogs, rallying from behind amid lowered expectations.
Now the scenario changes a bit. After the 106-98 come-from-behind victory Friday over the Detroit Pistons, the Bulls are one game ahead of the Toronto Raptors for the No. 3 seed in the East. If they win their remaining three games — against the New York Knicks (34-45) on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, against the Orlando Magic (23-56) at home on Monday and against the Charlotte Bobcats (41-39) on the road Wednesday — they’ll clinch the No. 3 seed.
With or without Rose, the Bulls have always been chasing. But in this short-term stretch, they are now the leaders trying to hold off the Raptors.
‘‘[The No. 3 seed] would be a good position to be in,’’ center Joakim Noah said after the victory against the Pistons. ‘‘It would be big for us. But there’s a game left. There’s a big game on Sunday. You can’t [look] forward, can’t think about the playoffs right now. . . . If we want that third seed . . . it’s going to be an exciting game and good preparation for the playoffs. That’s what it’s all about.’’
With their single-minded, Thibodeau-induced approach, the Bulls have been winning these games against beatable teams almost without fail. Since losing to the Sacramento Kings (27-53) on Feb. 3, the Bulls are 24-8 — 12-0 against non-playoff teams. The worst team they’ve lost to in that span is the 43-36 Brooklyn Nets.
To their credit, the Bulls aren’t taking any bows for putting themselves in this position with Rose out for the season since November and Deng having been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 7 when they were 14-18 — though that alone makes Thibodeau a worthy coach-of-the-year candidate. There’s a long way to go, starting Sunday in New York.
‘‘Right now, we’re just focused on basketball — making plays for each other and getting better,’’ backup big man Taj Gibson said. ‘‘Everything that’s going to come with success will come. Right now, we remember how nobody was on our bandwagon at the beginning of the year [and] how that felt. We’re believing in ourselves now.’’