Bulls’ closeness has created an identity city can embrace

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Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, guard Derrick Rose and forward Luol Deng listen as head coach Tom Thibodeau talks during a fourth quarter timeout. The Bulls cameback for a 104-99 victory over the Indiana Pacers in game one of the first round April 16, 2011 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

The flaws of an injury-depleted roster were increasingly visible for all to see.

What was lost in a Bulls season sponsored by Ibuprofen and the Acme Medical Supply Co. were the team’s strengths. It’s important not to lose sight of that in the wake of the top-seeded Bulls being eliminated Thursday in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

We don’t yet know whether these Bulls can win a championship, but they embody everything this city supposedly holds dear. After 14 years on the NBA’s hamster wheel of trying to rebuild after the Michael Jordan era, it’s not a bad place to be.

‘‘Every young kid has to like the Bulls,” analyst Charles Barkley said during the NBA playoff games Thursday on TNT. ‘‘That team competes. They compete; they don’t make any excuses for injuries. Even after they lost [Derrick] Rose, they still wanted to win. The city of Chicago should be proud of that team, and they are set for the next few years.”

I’ve covered pro sports for 20 years and never have been around a more hard-working or tighter-knit group of athletes than these Bulls. From Rose to Brian Scalabrine, these guys genuinely care about and play for each other. There’s real value in that.

The respect around the league for the Bulls is off the charts. To find a group of players that plays as hard and unselfishly as this team does is extremely rare at any level in any sport, which is why vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman will be reluctant to compromise what the Bulls have built.

‘‘I just thought our spirit and our belief was amazing,” forward Luol Deng said late Thursday. ‘‘Every time we had somebody go down, we just looked at each other in the locker room and . . . really believed we were going to get it done, and we just went out and fought every night. . . .

‘‘Each night, we had each other’s back. It was more than just basketball; we cared about each other. When someone was down, we picked them up. We really became a close group. You don’t really have the best record in the NBA in the regular season if your team is not a close group.”

This isn’t a perfect NBA team. Tom Thibodeau might have things to learn before becoming the ideal NBA coach. But in a league where runaway egos often leave craters that can be seen from space, this team has earned the right to see where fate takes it.

The Bulls’ formula isn’t tried-and-true in a league where it takes at least two and usually three All-Star-caliber players to win a title, but they have been successful enough to continue the experiment.

Forgive the Thibodeau clichés. They’re more tiresome than ever, but they’re important in this case.

‘‘We have more than enough to win with,” he said. ‘‘If you defend and you rebound and you keep your turnovers down, if you do those three things, you’re going to be in position to win, no matter where you are and who you’re playing against. If you execute offensively, play inside-out and share the ball, you’re going to have a great chance of winning.

‘‘When I look at our team the last two years, we’ve had a lot injuries. We’ve always been able to get through things. I’m disappointed in the loss, but I’m not disappointed in our team. We’ve battled all year long.”

Finding a coach and players who bring out the best in each other is rare. Finding a synergy between players and a coach is even more so.

Thibodeau and the Bulls are a symphony of floor burns, defense and rebounds. The Bulls finally have something the organization has strived for since the Jordan era ended.

An identity.

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