Something’s missing with the Bulls. Fighting for playoff position, they beat the top-ranked Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference 83-81 at the United Center Thursday night, but then couldn’t complete the deal against Cleveland at home Saturday, losing to the Cavs 112-108 in overtime. Thanks to the oddball ranking system the NBA uses to create its playoff seedings — division leaders are guaranteed slots in the top half of the draw no matter how bad they are — the Central Division Pistons and Cavs are up top, followed by the Atlantic-leading Toronto Raptors and the currently Southeast-leading Washington Wizards. That leaves the Bulls ranked fifth, even though they have a better record than any team in the Atlantic or Southeast after beating the Hawks in Atlanta Sunday. The worry is that the defending NBA champs, the Miami Heat, with Shaquille O’Neal redux, will claim the Southeast and a first-round playoff rematch with the Bulls. The Bulls could have laid claim to the second seed and been breathing down the Pistons’ necks with a win over the Cavs. Coach Scott Skiles stuck with the same lineup down the stretch — Ben Wallace, Luol Deng, guards Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, and high-flying rookie Tyrus Thomas, enjoying a career-high 27 points — but while they ran the Cavs down in regulation and took a 108-104 lead in the extra session, they ran down themselves after that, allowing the Cavs’ LeBron James to take over in the end.
Something’s missing with the Bulls, and it’s not just the killer instinct Michael Jordan had that this team lacks. (Gordon missed a game-winning three-pointer at the OT buzzer.) Still, I like the way Skiles is coaching this team, with one eye on developing his young talent and the other on the scoreboard, and he’s clearly pegged Thomas as one of his key players. The core five that finished the Cleveland game could still go far in the playoffs — and yes, that means winning a potential rematch with the Heat — if they get Andres Nocioni back. With Thomas certain to draw rookie fouls in the playoffs, the Bulls will need Nocioni to provide grit. He could also spell anyone in that group, — if memory serves, they even tried him briefly on Shaq last year — allowing the Bulls to retain their intensity. They need to develop that killer instinct to win titles, but I like their talent.