The Inbounds: The Chicago Bulls can defy expectations again. Is that a good thing?

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

The Bulls were supposed to be a middle-seed in 2011, maybe a 4 or a 5 seed. They took the No.1 overall seed in the East.

Chicago was supposed to be hampered by injuries, particularly those to Derrick Rose in 2012, falling back maybe to a 2nd or 3rd seed. Again, No.1 with a bull-et. (Get it? Because they’re the Bulls? And it’s a Bull-et? Get… OK, sorry.)

This year, Rose is out recovering from ACL surgery, as highlighted extensively by Adidas, and most are not targeting them for a top-four seed, expecting a fall back to the pack. They revamped their roster in terms of the bench and many feel not for the better. Carlos Boozer’s another year older, Luol Deng had a long, hard summer, and Kirk Hinrich is starting at point guard.

But let’s think about this for a minute. Is it really smart to dismiss not only what the Bulls accomplished, but how? The Bulls the past two seasons have not succeeded based on superior talent, in truth. Yes, Luol Deng has really improved offensively and put himself in the top 5-10 of players defensively. Carlos Boozer is so overrated hes’ underrated, and suffers from the same kind of misconception that Joe Johnson deals with. Joakim Noah is very quietly, ironically, one of the better centers in the league at both ends of the floor. They have the talent, but they also have the system. Thibodeau relies on veterans making veteran plays offensively and a barbed-wire trap surrounded by landmines as his defensive construct. Anyone can be good defensively in Thibodeau’s system, or at least invisibly poor, because all you must do is what you’re taught and do so with emphasis and effort. You can be as unskilled or slow as any player in the league, and if you learn the things he teaches, you’re going to be good enough to not be a problem on the floor.

Put it this way, the Knicks can’t put Steve Novak on the floor for stretches because if they do, he leaves them vulnerable defensively, despite Woodson’s excellent defensive coaching. Novak could exist in the Bulls’ system, and while still a liability, be less of one.

So if your liabilities aren’t really liabilities and your strengths are still strength, why are we so quick to shove the Bulls off the top rungs of the Eastern ladder? The Heat will be resting stars as they always do, the Celtics, much the same. Indiana is certainly a threat but it’s hard to argue they’re better than the Bulls at their best. So why can’t the Bulls win the division, and get a top seed?

There’s no reason. That’s how good Tom Thibodeau is. (Which makes the Bulls’ continued all-too-typical wrangling with him over his contract all the more maddening, and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.)

But there’s a question beyond that. Is that what Bulls fans should want? Is that what the Bulls organization should want? Is that the best outcome for them?

It’s hard to say that the Bulls are overachieving if this is the third year they would reach that kind of height, but it’s still true. They’re playing at a level which defies pretty common rational analysis of how good they are, as a sum of their parts. A team can definitely reach higher as a composite and is more than just the individual talents. But is it this much? The results of the playoffs would indicate no. You can toss out last year, sure, if you want to go with Rose’s injury and the emotional impact on the team leading to the loss to the Sixers, but remember, that same team had problems with Indiana, always in close games in a short-but-fierce five-game series, then really had some emotional swings vs. Atlanta, before finally winning Game 1 vs. Miami and looking unstoppable, then getting railroaded like Wile E. Coyote. They just needed a little white ACME sign.

The Bulls need so much to go their way, for Boozer to play as an elite player he’s never really been, for Deng to shoot the lights out when he’s a good but inconsistent mid-range shooter, for the bench mob to constantly overwhelm opponents with hustle (or veteran savvy, I suppose, this year, with the bench significantly different). They can still look really good but eventually, they’ll run up against a mirror that shows how good they really are, and when that comes, they tend to mix down to about the team we thought they’d be in the beginning. It doesn’t take away from what Thibs has done, if anything, it emphasizes it. But we also can’t realistically look at this team as a title contender, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?

The maddening part is that Rose’s injury leaves so much in the air. If the team gels and plays together, it’s going to excite the team and its fans, prompting more belief. If they don’t somehow reach the impossible dream, then it will be crushing, but still be filled with “Well, Derrick wasn’t really back yet.” Rose’s injury causes a constant level of self-doubt, not only towards any positive regard for the team, but for any criticisms as well.

There’s no real way to evaluate the Bulls, other than “really good, but probably not a title team.”

A year in which they did not reach expectations, did not exceed them, just kind of slumped to a close could bring another lottery miracle, a younger player with talent at the least. It could force changes from the front office desperate not to waste Rose’s youth, and a move to amnesty Boozer. There could be change and progress, versus the current results which are just good enough to be able to justify not making any sort of bold move. How do you say “we have to get better” when you were the best team in your conference?

And the answer to that is “by examining the level of superstar talent you need to win a title in today’s NBA.” Rose is a special talent, regardless of his limitations, and has a remarkable future ahead of him. But another year of taking a hammering in the playoffs, fresh off his recovery, would work contrary to the long-term goals.

The Bulls are stuck between a Rose and a hard place, and the only way to facilitate change may be for them to not do the thing they’re best at: playing at a level far beyond what may be sustainable in the playoffs long-term.

Isaiah Thomas loses tooth, calmly hits two 3-pointers vs. Wizards (VIDEO)

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Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is going to need a dentist after Sunday’s Game 1 against the Washington Wizards. While trying to fight around a screen, Thomas caught a spare elbow and wound up with his dental work all over the floor at TD Garden.

The play came in the first quarter as Thomas was trying to guard Washington’s Otto Porter Jr. coming off a screen. As Porter reached for the ball as the pass came to him on the curl, he wound up whacking Thomas in the front of his grill.

Thomas’ tooth could be seen on slo-mo replay flying across the air.

Warning: sort of gross.

Via Twitter:

Gross! Although it should be said that it seems possible that Thomas’ tooth is actually a bridge, which is to say it was missing already. The Celtics medical staff was able to put the tooth back in during the second quarter.

Meanwhile, Thomas came back up the floor after losing his tooth and hit two 3-pointers, so perhaps it’s good luck?

Why is Robin Lopez holding this dog during his exit interview? (VIDEO)

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What did Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez have to say during his exit interviews? I can’t really tell, it’s all a bunch of white noise. All I see is him holding his giant, shaggy dog named Muppet while speaking to reporters.

I can’t get over it, really. Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?

Lopez is the perfect candidate to do this if you think about it, given his propensity to be a little off-kilter.

Via Twitter:

Lopez was mostly talking about taking away positives from a weird Bulls season in which they struggled all year until miraculously making the 8-seed before challenging top-ranked Boston in round 1.

Clippers, Jazz prepare for Game 7 in Los Angeles

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LOS ANGELES  (AP) – Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul was adamant the sun would not set on Paul Pierce‘s NBA run in Salt Lake City on Friday night.

“I looked over at ‘Truth’ during one of (those) timeouts and I said ‘You’re not ending your career in Utah,’ ” said Paul, referring to Pierce’s popular nickname. “We told him that. We just said we want to keep this thing going for him. Paul was big tonight. Like the 3 he hit over there on the wing, and stuff like that. Just his energy and his voice in those different timeouts I think was huge for us.”

With a crucial 98-93 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6, the Clippers will attempt to extend the career of the 39-year-old Pierce, who is retiring at season’s end, and capture the series Sunday in Game 7 at Staples Center.

The winner advances to the second round to meet the Golden State Warriors in a best-of-seven affair beginning Tuesday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.

Paul, whose two late free throws sealed the win against the Jazz, led the charge by scoring 29 points, dishing eight assists and allowing the Clippers to avoid elimination in the opening round for the second straight season. The Portland Trail Blazers bounced them last season in six games, aided by injuries to Paul and Blake Griffin.

And as Paul loathes to hear, the point guard has never guided a team past the second round.

“This is what we talked about before (Game 6),” said Paul, who has become the Clippers’ main force offensively with Griffin out of the playoffs again, this time with an injury to his big toe. “Doc (Rivers) said to go out there and give yourself a chance. We knew we couldn’t win both games (Friday), and we wanted to give ourselves a chance.”

Utah will have another opportunity to end Pierce’s career on Sunday despite missing a chance on its home court. After the Jazz won Game 5 on Tuesday at Staples, All-Star forward Gordon Hayward made it clear he didn’t want to return for a Game 7.

Hayward, though, is humming a different tune now.

“We’ve come a long way from where we were three years ago,” Hayward told the Salt Lake Tribune. “If you had told me at the beginning of the year you’d be in a Game 7 against the Clippers in L.A., I’d have been like, ‘Bring it on.’ ”

The Jazz will be forced to bring their best with center Rudy Gobert hobbling again. Gobert, who sustained a hyperextended left knee in Game 1 that kept him out of the lineup for two games, sprained his ankle in the second half of Game 6 and was forced to the bench because of it during critical stretches.

Gobert said the ankle wouldn’t hinder him Sunday.

“I sprained it on somebody’s foot,” said Gobert, who finished with 15 points, nine boards and three blocks, according to the Tribune. “I tried to run through it, but that didn’t work out. I’ve had a lot of sprained ankles before. I will be good.”

PBT Extra: Can Toronto threaten Cleveland, LeBron James in second round?

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There are a few reasons to think the Toronto Raptors can push and maybe even upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in their second round playoff series that starts Monday. For one, they went six games last playoffs and this is a deeper, more versatile Raptors team with Serge Ibaka as the power forward/center, P.J. Tucker coming off the bench, and the emergence of guys like Norman Powell. The Raptors have a great backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. And, the Cavaliers were not a focused or good defensive team in the first round.

On the other side of the ledger, the Cavaliers have LeBron James.

I break down this series in the latest PBT Extra.