Our survey of the most important games of the first half of the NBA season now shifts to the Central Division.
CHICAGO BULLS: Monday, January 25 vs. Miami — L, 89-84
No sequence from the first half of the season more perfectly epitomized the Chicago Bulls of recent years than a Saturday-Monday turnaround in late January.
This is a team which regularly gets up for the big games — not just this season, but over the past several NBA campaigns. The Bulls won at Golden State last season; they remain the last visitor to win a regular season game in Oakland. Yet, the 2015 team under Tom Thibodeau had to scratch and claw to win 50 regular season contests. This year’s team — saddled with more injuries — lies in danger of missing the playoffs, but that same propensity to beat heavyweights on the road and lose “easier” games at home remains.
In late December, Chicago lost at home to Brooklyn but then won at Oklahoma City on Christmas Day. That could be viewed as the Bulls’ most defining week to date, but another sequence topped that one.
On Saturday, January 23, the premiere of ABC’s Saturday-night television package witnessed the running of the Bulls. Chicago smoked the Cavs in Cleveland, 96-83. Watching the Bulls that night, observers were reminded why it’s so hard to dismiss this team — regardless of the coach — as an NBA contender. Coordinated and coherent, Chicago offered an illustration of how formidable it can be when everyone enters the arena in a state of supreme preparedness.
It just doesn’t last for the Bulls, and all too often, the team’s play suffers at home.
Two nights later against a Miami team in the midst of a tailspin, the Bulls managed a meager 84 points in a loss to the Heat. Home-court losses to Minnesota, Brooklyn and Phoenix have marred this season as well, but none of those defeats came 48 hours after spanking the Cavs on their home floor. The maddening inconsistency of the Bulls points to a level of talent which is both erratic and insufficient.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: Monday, January 18 vs. Golden State, — L, 132-98
The Cavaliers offer an exceptional case… because they’re an exceptional team. Cleveland is — by most measurements — not a disappointment. The Cavaliers are still very much on track to win a conference title and make the NBA Finals. That should never be sneezed at. Moreover, a win over the San Antonio Spurs on January 30 with new coach Tyronn Lue shows how much this team can withstand all sorts of internal organizational turmoil.
Yet, this team is measured against the Golden State Warriors, like it or not, because the Dubs stand in the way of the Cavs’ ability to win a world title. The 34-point defeat on MLK Day — no matter what people close(r) to the situation in Cleveland might outwardly say — represented a thunderbolt moment, the eye-opening occurrence which will remain a constant reference point this season. No regular season game has more centrally defined the Cavs’ campaign, and no other one will to the same degree, unless the Spurs upset Golden State and face the Cavs in the Finals.
DETROIT PISTONS: Friday, December 18 at Chicago — W, 147-144 (4OT)
The Pistons faltered at various points in the first half of their season, but this is an organization which is generally headed in the right direction, so a positive note should define what this team has done over the course of three and a half months. An early-January road win at Boston should be taken into consideration, as should the early-November comeback of mammoth proportions in Portland against the Trail Blazers. However, this win — in four overtimes, on the road — against the Bulls represents just how well the Pistons have fought their inexperience, their opponents, and their recent history. Organizations in search of renewal don’t improve merely because of talent, but because of a better internal culture. Winning a 4-OT game on the road against a big-name opponent offers proof of genuine growth.
INDIANA PACERS: Sunday, January 17 at Denver — L, 129-126
The Pacers have been an erratic team throughout the season, enduring one bad streak before flourishing in a separate 10-day period. The fact that Indiana hasn’t been able to stabilize itself is a product of a defense which just isn’t as robust as it needs to be — and has been — under head coach Frank Vogel. The Pacers used to hang their hat on their defense, but when it vanishes for prolonged periods of time, Indiana ceases to be a flinty and formidable roadblock for other playoff teams in the East. With this in mind, a two-game sequence in the middle of January epitomizes the Pacers’ shortcomings to this point in the 2015-2016 season.
On Friday, January 15, the Pacers played matador defense and were drilled at home by Washington, 118-104. After a no-show at the defensive end of the floor, one would have figured that Indiana would spit nails and breathe fire in its next game the following Sunday in Denver. Instead, the Pacers surrendered 129 points to the Nuggets.
Indiana got swept by the Sacramento Kings in the first half of the season, so you might contend (reasonably) that those losses say more about the Pacers than the Denver setback. However, Toronto lost at home to Sacramento and has done just fine, thank you. Indiana’s loss at Sacramento was part of a back-to-back. The Denver loss wasn’t. It remains the foremost example of a team which can’t straighten up and fly right for very long.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS — Tuesday, December 15 at L.A. Lakers — L, 113-95
The Bucks’ brutally disappointing season begins and ends with their ability to play the Golden State Warriors as well as any team in the league… and to then turn around and produce complete clunkers against bad opponents.
On Saturday, December 12, the Bucks gave the Warriors their first loss of the season. Three nights later (with no games in between), Milwaukee was as flat as a silver-dollar pancake against the lowly Lakers in an 18-point loss. The Bucks have the capacity to play well, but they marshalled their energies and resources only when facing the defending champions (and in a few other isolated instances).