With the Bulls, it’s about this year. And the five after that.

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This season wasn’t supposed to be about the Bulls. It was about the flash of the Heat and the intensity of the Celtics making one more run. It was about the Lakers out West. The Bulls were going to be good, no doubt, but not good enough.

Then they started defending like mad men, executing their defensive game plan better than any team in the league. Then Derrick Rose started playing like an MVP and slashing to the rim with quickness and body control that is unmatched. Then the Bulls evolved and took on the persona of their workaholic coach — they came to play every night harder than the other team.

In the end it was about them. They worked and slashed their way to the best record in the league (62-20).

And they haven’t begun to fulfill their potential. This wasn’t about just this being their season in Chicago. It was about how next year might be their year, too. And the year after that, and the one after that and….

The Bulls are now the team of the future in the NBA.

Chicago is young — Carlos Boozer is the “old man” at 29, entering his prime. Rose is 22, Luol Deng is 25, as is Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. The only older guy making any significant contributions is 38-year-old Kurt Thomas.

People look at the Heat and see a team that will be good for the next several years because their core is in its prime. The Bulls are younger, with more room to improve as individuals, and they have a more well-rounded roster right now. The Heat will be contenders going forward. The Bulls are going to be right their with them.

Still, there are doubters. Certainly about this season and these upcoming playoffs. Put Chris Bosh in that group.

The argument against the Bulls goes like this — you’ve already seen their best. Chicago outworked teams during the regular season, simply played harder than everyone else. Good for the Bulls, but in the playoffs everyone is focused, everyone plays hard every game. (Well, maybe not the Lakers, but you get the idea.) Their advantages will disappear.

But if you believe defense wins championships, you have to believe the Bulls have a legitimate chance.

David Thorpe, the Executive Director of the Pro Training Center and ESPN analyst, said in an e-mail hard work alone by the Bulls was not enough. He used a football analogy to make his point.

“I think they out-execute everyone,” Thorpe said. “They remind me of the 2002 Buccaneers, Super Bowl winners (and owners of arguably as great a defense as the NFL has ever seen). … Both defenses were built around the idea that every man has a job to do on every possession, and each job changes based on what and who they are defending. That is why executing is so crucial.

“Put it this way — like football, if each player was graded on the total number of breakdowns they had for the game (beaten off dribble, not getting to their help spots fast enough, not following the schematic plan on certain actions, etc.), my guess is the Bulls players would score better than every other team. That is coaching.”

Defense and coaching are big steps toward a title. But the Bulls do have challenges ahead in these playoffs, and it’s not about the defense.

Rose is the center of everything they do on offense, and both Thorpe and the doubters (including scouts we spoke with) note that the better teams are going to start trapping him and denying him and doing everything they can to take the ball out of his hands. Indiana has a good defense (12th in the league in efficiency) and will start to execute it, but teams in the second round and beyond (Boston, Miami and Orlando) have the players to really execute it. Rose will not be able to dominate in the same way. He will be forced to pass or expend wild amounts of energy to get contested, difficult shots. He’s going to have to pass.

Other Bulls players will have to step up and make plays. We will see if they can — Boozer can score inside, but will he do it enough? Deng can by streaky, Ronnie Brewer can slash but will he get the ball, guys like Kyle Korver can shoot. But will it be enough?

What if it’s not? What if the Bulls learn they really need a better shooting guard and some more maturity as a team?

Then you can bet they will be back next year. And the year after. And the year after that.

Whether or not this season ends being about the Bulls, you can bet seasons in the near future will be.

Jeremy Lin says “at times it kind of sucks” being only Asian-American in NBA

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When Jeremy Lin landed in Toronto — after being bought out and waived by the Hawks, clearing the way for him to sign with the Raptors for the playoff push — the number of cameras and reporters in the Raptors locker room instantly ballooned. Lin remains one of the most popular players worldwide in the NBA, he’s a social media phenom, and there are cameras there to track his every move and send it around the world, particularly back to Asia.

Lin isn’t in the NBA because he’s famous and sells tickets — he’s a quality guard who can help a team, there’s a reason the contending Raptors picked him up — but he inhabits the role of both player and groundbreaker.

Lin talked about that (and Asians in popular culture) with Cary Chow of the Undefeated in an interesting Q&A at The Undefeated, where he said being the only Asian-American in the NBA is not easy.

At times it kind of sucks. At other times it’s amazing. Amazing because you get to challenge everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives. I’m rooting for so many more Asians to come in. Last year, when I was with Brooklyn and we had Ding [Yanyuhang] on the summer league team, I was like, ‘Dude, please make the team. We’d have so much fun together during the season.’

On the feeling that he has to represent an entire race.

Yeah. At first it was something I ran from and really struggled with. Now I embrace it way more and am more equipped to handle it. I’m not perfect, but I kind of know who I want to be at this point in my career, so I keep trucking along and doing things the right way and stay above all the distractions.

Lin has handled his fame deftly over the years. He has challenges and opportunities not open to other players, and that’s the balancing act. It takes someone smart, but also grounded and balanced to pull it all off. The Raptors got all that, along with the extra cameras around the team.

Mostly, though, the Raptors got a player who is going to help them make a deep playoff run.

 

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.