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Patience trumps panic

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

Keep in mind that coach Scott Skiles gets paid a lot to make sure the glass always looks half-full. Anybody else who says they saw the Chicago Bulls in the playoff hunt midway through this season is either lying or had better have a doctor's note explaining they've been in a coma.

The reason has little to do with the speed of the Bulls' turnaround or the lack of precedent. The NBA's mantra, after all, is ''everybody makes a run,'' and just last season, the Miami Heat stumbled 0-7 leaving the gate and still managed to close a respectable 42-40 and make the playoffs.

So why not the Bulls?

Before we tackle that question, a word from Skiles.

''That 0-9 start was probably the scariest thing we'd had to endure this season,'' Skiles said after practice the other day. ''But even then, we never saw ourselves being any 0-9 team. At least it didn't feel that way. So that gave us a mental head start in turning things around. We always had confidence that we are a good team.''

With Thursday night's visit by the Charlotte Bobcats marking the official midpoint of the season, the Bulls suddenly look like a very good team. They came in having won four straight, 11 of 12, and 17 of the last 21. Even in a weak Eastern Conference and a league filled with surprises, that has to be the most surprising development of all.

Skiles, of course, had a perfectly reasonable explanation.

''We went from virtually last in the league to first in one major defensive statistic,'' he said, referring to his team's ability to hold opponents to a league-low 41 percent field-goal shooting percentage. But playing great defense is a symptom and not the cause of the Bulls' success.

Credit for that belongs mostly to Skiles and general manager John Paxson, who as recently as six weeks ago had no reason to believe that their commitment and tough love were about to be rewarded.

Franchises reach tipping points all the time, and at that moment, this future of Chicago's looked a lot more like the Clippers than one just a half-dozen years removed from the salad days of Michael Jordan. What the Bulls had in common with the Clippers was a handful of losing seasons, a team loaded with underachieving draft picks and disgruntled veterans who viewed Chicago as a rest stop on the way to somewhere else.

Paxson turned out to be shrewder than his predecessor Jerry Krause. He found better players in the draft and patiently pruned the roster instead of cutting down the tree and starting over one more time. Then he quit meddling and let the hard-nosed Skiles do the rest.

Even so, as recently as December, the Bulls were flopping and offers were coming in for Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, the high school phenoms whose arrested development was the legacy of the last administration. Paxson surrounded them with a better mix of veterans and four rookies that turned out to be much better than advertised. And while some of Skiles' tenacity and stubbornness had clearly rubbed off on the young Bulls and even the old ones, on paper nothing looked different.

Coaches like to say that losing affords better teaching opportunities than winning, but the Bulls had lost so much that the opposite turned out to be true. Three of the rookies who came to Chicago — Duke's Luol Deng and Chris Duhon and Connecticut's Ben Gordon — came directly from winning programs and floor leader Kirk Hinrich is just two seasons removed from Kansas. Confidence is a fragile commodity everywhere in sports, but at those places, patience always trumps panic.

In Skiles, they found a coach willing to risk his own neck to buy them the time to work it out. And each, in turn, stepped up every night as a kind of payback. Those lessons have been reinforcing themselves ever since.

''In this stretch, we're just finding ways to win,'' Hinrich marveled. ''Last year, we were finding ways to lose.''

Don't get the wrong idea: The Bulls may look, and play, like one big happy family, but winning hasn't made Skiles go soft. He never passes up the opportunity to jam in one more punishing practice, to remind this crew that a few points either way could trigger a slide down the standings and back into that all-too-familiar rut. He just doesn't do it as often.

A few minutes after another of those grueling practices ended last Friday, at a time when his players used to head back to the locker room, the court was still nearly full. Two days earlier, the Bulls' 7-game winning streak had been snapped in Boston, and the quiet bus ride on the way to the airport spoke volumes to Skiles.

''What was interesting to me was you could hear a pin drop in the bus. 'It was very quiet. You win seven in a row, you drop one, there could be a little, 'No big deal.'

''It is,'' Skiles said to everyone still within earshot, ''a big deal.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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