Backed by several statistics, the Chicago Bulls currently have the best defensive team in the NBA. And to no one's surprise.
Through 14 games, they've allowed opponents to score 100 or more points just three times and have given up under 85 points in six of their last eight contests. Routinely a strong rebounding club even before coach Tom Thibodeau's arrival a season ago, the Bulls are snatching an NBA-best 46.6 rebounds per game, almost a full board ahead of the second-best Los Angeles Lakers.
In Saturday night's 77-64 victory over the Toronto Raptors at the United Center, the Bulls surrendered a paltry 34.9 percent shooting, 3-for-10 from three-point range, and outrebounded the visitors 52-50.
Given the defensive control, you would assume that the Bulls were able to get out in transition at ease. Wrong -- they scored only 12 fastbreak points. Bulls players and coaches have made it an emphasis to get easy baskets this season. Not able to do that Saturday night, the Bulls shot 40.2 percent from the field and 4-for-15 from beyond the arc against the lowly Raptors.
Although part of that had to do with the Toronto's ability to take care of the ball -- they turned it over just nine times -- the Bulls' coaching staff believes the squad should be running more because of the high defensive level they've displayed so far. Of course, it's point guard Derrick Rose's responsibility to make that happen. Transition hoops not only get Rose's teammates involved, but also take the burden off them all -- especially him -- to create shots in the halfcourt offense.
"I didn't think we played with the type of pace we would've liked to tonight, from start to finish," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "The pace was OK in the first quarter, and then we slowed down. We got to do a better job of continuing with a fast pace. Particularly when if we're defending well and we're rebounding well, we got to get out and we got to throw ahead. And we got to run through and we got to run to the rim."
However, earlier in the season it certainly appeared as though the Bulls were making strides, transforming into a team that could swiftly score following a defensive rebound. Bulls shooting guard Rip Hamilton played a major role in giving his teammates the confidence to run more in transition, but the 6-foot-7 veteran has missed the team's last seven games, and nine of the last 10. General manager Gar Forman said before Saturday's game that he expects Hamilton to return in the coming week.
"Everyone says they want to be a running team," Thibodeau said. "But to have the discipline to do it on every possession, it takes a lot of work."
Yet another area that the reigning Coach of the Year is pushing his playing to improve in.
Grizzlies without Randolph: The Memphis Grizzlies are 4-3 since the Bulls routed them 104-64 on New Year's Day at the United Center. But in that game they lost star forward Zach Randolph to a slight MCL tear in his right knee. He could return as early as March.
The two teams face off Monday in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee at FedEx Forum (at 12 p.m. on ESPN/WGN) for the second consecutive season. Last year, Rose, who attended the University of Memphis in 2007-08, celebrated the holiday by dropping the first, and only, triple-double of his career with 22 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
Marreese Speights, whom Memphis acquired Jan. 4 in a three-team trade, is doing a solid job of filling the void at power forward and has averaged 8.2 points with the Grizzlies, including scoring in double figures in three of the team's past four games. The Grizzlies and their star, Rudy Gay, have picked things up recently. Gay is averaging 22 points in his last five games.
Bulls forward Carlos Boozer had arguably his best performance of the season when both teams first played, scoring 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds in just 24 minutes of action. All night, the Bulls suffocated the Grizzlies, who shot a meager 31 percent from the field and were outrebounded 55-40.
Rose's accolades: After the first returns of the 2012 All-Star game balloting on Thursday, Rose was the leading vote-getter among Eastern Conference guards with 640,470 votes. On Monday, USA Basketball will reveal the finalists for the 2012 London Olympics. Rose is a lock to be on what ESPN.com reported Sunday night will be a 20-player roster -- which will be trimmed to 12 in June.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Rose will start his second straight All-Star game. He figures to start alongside Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, assuming the latter is not traded ahead of February's midseason exhibition game in Orlando. At guard, Rose is followed by Wade's 637,912 votes. Rajon Rondo is a distant third with 253,969.
Luol Deng is averaging almost 15 points and eight rebounds and appears to be the Bulls' best candidate to join Rose, who knows exactly how important his starting small forward is on both ends of the court. Deng made a strong statement in Friday night's 88-79 road win over the Boston Celtics on national TV, posting 21 points and 16 rebounds and thoroughly outplaying perennial All-Star Paul Pierce.
"Lu is definitely going to make the All-Star team this year," Rose told the assembled media Friday. "If he don't, that would be cheating man."
Joakim Noah is second among East centers but is a whopping 679,699 votes behind Howard, the league's best big man.
Meanwhile in the Western Conference, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Andrew Bynum are in comfortable position to land the starting nods. You can check out the full ballot below.
East vote totals:
Forwards: LeBron James (Mia) 640,789; Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 496,351; Amar'e Stoudemire (NYK) 178,797; Kevin Garnett (Bos) 173,161; Chris Bosh (Mia) 140,601; Paul Pierce (Bos) 94,071; Luol Deng (Chi) 85,086; Andrea Bargnani (Tor) 54,739; Carlos Boozer (Chi) 53,477; Hedo Turkoglu (Orl) 43,154.
Guards: Derrick Rose (Chi) 640,476; Dwyane Wade (Mia) 637,912; Rajon Rondo (Bos) 253,969; Ray Allen (Bos) 174,934; Deron Williams (NJN) 89,128; Jose Calderon (Tor) 42,929; John Wall (Was) 38,025; Richard Hamilton (Chi) 36,418; Kyrie Irving (Cle) 27,713; Joe Johnson (Atl) 23,384.
Centers: Dwight Howard (Orl) 754,737; Joakim Noah (Chi) 75,038; Tyson Chandler (NYK) 61,774; Joel Anthony (Mia) 41,832; JaVale McGee (Was) 24,713; Al Horford (Atl) 23,546.
West vote totals:
Forwards: Kevin Durant (OKC) 633,538; Blake Griffin (LAC) 394,264; Dirk Nowitzki (Dal) 231,832; Pau Gasol (LAL) 185,428; Kevin Love (Min) 143,814; LaMarcus Aldridge (Por) 118,268; Tim Duncan (SA) 81,783; Lamar Odom (Dal) 59,686; Metta World Peace (LAL) 39,006; Danilo Gallinari (Den) 34,438.
Guards: Kobe Bryant (LAL) 690,613; Chris Paul (LAC) 540,173; Ricky Rubio (Min) 133,520; Steve Nash (Pho) 118,922; Russell Westbrook (OKC) 107,197; Kyle Lowry (Hou) 90,725; Monta Ellis (GS) 63,696; Manu Ginobili (SA) 50,765; Jason Kidd (Dal) 49,596; Chauncey Billups (LAC) 42,657.
Centers: Andrew Bynum (LAL) 496,597; DeAndre Jordan (LAC) 134,961; Marc Gasol (Mem) 102,116; Nenê (Den) 94,167; Marcin Gortat (Pho) 62,631; Kendrick Perkins (OKC) 41,579.