Baby Bulls growing up quickly in overdue return to postseason

No tears shed for 0-9 start, young team back on track

April 26, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

As the losses mounted, the predictions began. Some figured the then-0-9 Chicago Bulls might start the season with 20 straight defeats, given their schedule at the time. Others believed the Bulls would at least threaten, if not break, the NBA record of 73 losses set by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers.

The losing streak ended in the team's next game, against the Utah Jazz, in the last of a six-game West Coast road trip. Shortly after that, the Bulls were making their own prediction.

"We went on a three- or four-game winning streak. I remember talking with Eddy [Curry] at the back of the bus, and Kirk [Hinrich] overheard us talking and he came back there and we were just saying that we were going to make the playoffs," fourth-year forward Tyson Chandler recalled recently. "We were that confident."

After climbing back from their horrendous start, after overcoming a season-ending injury to rookie forward Luol Deng and an irregular heartbeat that sidelined Curry in the past month, the Bulls made good on their boast. With a 47-35 record, Chicago secured the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls began their first postseason since 1998, when Michael Jordan led the team to the last of the franchise's six championships, a lot better than they began the regular season. Chicago is unbeaten, having taken a 1-0 lead over the Washington Wizards with Sunday's 103-94 victory at the United Center.

Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is tomorrow night in Chicago.

What the Bulls have done this season under defensive-minded, no-nonsense coach Scott Skiles is nothing short of remarkable, given how young a team they are.

The two offensive stars of the first playoff game were rookies Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni. Gordon, who led Connecticut to an NCAA championship in 2004, scored 30 points in his familiar role as the team's sixth man. Nocioni, who helped Argentina to an Olympic gold medal last summer, had 25 points and 18 rebounds.

The team's defensive stoppers were rookie point guard Chris Duhon and Hinrich, a second-year guard out of Kansas. Duhon, the former Duke star who became a starter last month, and Hinrich harassed Gilbert Arenas into a 3-for-19 shooting night that produced nine points, more than 16 below the All-Star's average.

What the Bulls have accomplished is also a surprise considering Skiles has never been known as the most patient coach, a hot-tempered perfectionist who quickly lost his first head coaching job in Phoenix in 2002 after a little more than two seasons and then went 19-47 in his first year in Chicago last season.

"First when I coached in Phoenix, it was that I can't coach today's player, I'm only good enough to coach veteran guys," Skiles said. "Now I get the question about whether only young guys can handle this kind of thing. I've got a team that works very, very hard. We practice hard, we prepare hard and they do it."

Recalling the team's 0-9 start, Skiles said: "One of the reasons we were 0-9 was that we took a very young team on a West Coast trip, and that's very difficult. But we were fortunate to win the last game of that trip, and it kind of took the weight of the world off the guys' shoulders.

"They had a great attitude and they were working very hard and they were even a little puzzled why they were 0-9. We weren't playing poorly; we just weren't able to win the games. Then we had a long homestand where we took care of business. Even though we're young, there are quite a few guys in there that are used to winning."

Duhon said the team's youth was a positive in keeping things together during the early losing streak.

"I think it was good to have a lot of young guys, guys who were excited about being in the NBA and wanted to make a statement for themselves," said Duhon, a second-round draft pick last June, the 38th player taken overall. "I think it just brought a lot of energy to the older guys."

The "Baby" Bulls, as many have called them this season, still look to some of their veteran players for leadership. But even forward Antonio Davis, 36, now in his second season in Chicago and his 12th in the NBA, finds himself looking toward his young teammates for strength.

"I think I've enjoyed it more than they have," Davis said before a recent game in Washington. "They surpassed everything I expected a long time ago. I think they continue to enlighten me in a lot of different ways."

That happened after the Bulls clinched their playoff spot win a home win April 9 against the Toronto Raptors.

"You're waiting for the guys to celebrate like they've done something, like we don't have anything to worry about," Davis recalled. "They show up the next day ready to go, like nothing happened, like they expect to be in the playoffs, like they expect to be successful, like they understand."

Davis' leadership role will likely expand in the postseason, because he has the most playoff experience (now 88 games) of any Chicago player.

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