Tuesday , May , 01 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

These Bulls are learning how to win

(Sports Network) – There is nobody close to resembling Michael Jordan on
this version of the Chicago Bulls, but they have rising stars and some
veterans who are starting to learn how to win together.

Former Piston Ben Wallace and the Bulls are fresh off a surprising sweep of
the 2006 NBA Champion Miami Heat. Wallace, who signed with Chicago as an
unrestrictive free agent last offseason, left Central Division-rival
Detroit and signed a lucrative, multi-year contract with the Bulls last
summer. A four-time All-Star, Wallace spent the previous six seasons with
the Pistons and helped them win an NBA title in 2004.

Chicago has advanced past the opening round of the playoffs for the first time
since 1998, when it last won the NBA title. Prior to beating the Heat, the
six-time NBA champion Bulls last playoff series victory was over the Utah Jazz
in six games during the 1998 NBA Finals.

The addition of Wallace paid big dividends against Shaquille O’Neal and the
Heat. Wallace averaged 9.3 points, a club-high 9.8 boards and 1.5 blocks per
game in round one. He set the tone for Chicago against Miami, and was the
intimidating presence on defense that the Bulls had hoped he would be when
they signed him.

“Every year that he (Wallace) plays he has to be mentioned as the best
defensive player of the year,” said Chicago’s Ben Gordon after defeating the
Heat in four games. “I can’t even explain all the things he has helped us with
that don’t show up on the stat sheet. I think he is the best big man passer in
the league.

“He likes to tell me he is a point forward sometimes. He likes to throw no-
looks. He does a lot besides the usual things everybody expects. He brings a
lot to the team.”

Twenty-two-year-old Luol Deng shined against the Heat, as he averaged a team-
best 26.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, while the sharp-shooting Gordon, who is
just 24, posted 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and a team-high 5.5 assists per
game. Deng and Gordon are both playing in just their third seasons in the
NBA.

The Bulls are participating in the playoffs for the third straight year and
28th time in team history. They lost in the first round the previous two
years. Chicago fell in six games to the Washington Wizards in 2005 and were
eliminated by Miami in six last year.

“It feels great,” said Deng about beating the Heat. “It’s a great feeling.
We’re in a place we have never been (the second round). Some of us have been
there, but for the core of us it has been a goal for the entire season.”

Kirk Hinrich, who is playing in his fourth season in the league, ended
the first-round series with averages of 11.0 and 5.3 assists, while 37-year-
old forward P.J. Brown was solid defensively and did decent work on the
boards. Twenty-seven-year-old Andres Nocioni provided scoring (12.0 ppg) and
flexibility off the bench for Chicago head coach Scott Skiles.

Against the Heat, who became the first defending champion to be swept in the
first round since the 1957 Warriors, Chicago played tough interior defense and
knocked down the clutch shots. The 26-year-old Hinrich, Deng, Gordon and
Nocioni grew up a lot in terms of NBA years in the opening round, as all four
experienced the thrill of winning an playoff series for the first time.

The 32-year-old Wallace and Brown are veterans who have gone past the first
round before. Their leadership and experience is a big asset for the Bulls.

“We started off the season a little bit rocky,” said Wallace. “We started off
a little rough. At that point in time it would have been easier for guys to
throw in a towel and say we aren’t as good as we claim to be. These guys kept
playing and kept fighting. We kept pulling for each other, and we just found a
way to make it happen. Anytime you have a group of guys who believe that they
can win, a good thing can happen.”

Waiting for the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals are the playoff-
tested Pistons. The All-Star backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard
Hamilton will be very tough for Gordon and Hinrich to deal with in a best-of-
seven series, while Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber will try
and contain Deng and take Ben Wallace out of the game by knocking down their
outside shots.

“We have bigger goals then this,” said Hinrich. “Hopefully this is just a
step. We feel good, we’ll enjoy this, but we realize that we are still in
this. We to have focus and get ready for a great and experienced Detroit
team.”

Win or lose, facing the Pistons, who have appeared in the East finals four
straight years and have made it to at least the conference semifinals for a
sixth straight year, is part of the growing up process for these Bulls.

It may not be this year, but Deng, Gordon, Hinrich, Nocioni and Ben Wallace
are getting close to helping the Bulls reach their goal of once again
representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.