The 2016–17 Chicago Bulls are not fun to watch. Rajon Rondo used to be fun to watch. Dwyane Wade can be fun to watch. Jimmy Butler is usually fun to watch. But this team is one of those rare cases where the whole is less than the sum of its individual parts.
As the league has trended away from the hoop and beyond the 3-point line, this season’s Bulls have stubbornly decided to not use the shot that would net them three points instead of two. In the regular season, only the Minnesota Timberwolves took fewer 3s per game than the Bulls, with Chicago opting to grind out games with its rebounding (tied for second best in the NBA), its star power in Butler, and the franchise’s own secret weapon: national television.
Since 2013, the Bulls have won 20 straight regular-season home games on TNT. Sure, there are plenty of qualifiers here (“home games on TNT” is as hyperspecific as me saying I’ve worked out every Tuesday that’s cooler than 72 degrees), but it’s still an impressive, if odd, streak.
On Sunday afternoon the Bulls found themselves fighting against a 1-seeded Celtics, a raucous TD Garden crowd, and an early deficit. And though this game wasn’t at home or during the regular season, perhaps playing on their preferred cable channel gave the Bulls a little luck. They outrebounded Boston by nearly 20 and escaped with a 106–102 victory, giving them the first 1–0 series lead by an 8-seed since 2014.
The TNT Bulls, a regular-season anomaly, are now coming for the playoffs too. Here are the highlights and most absurd wins from their quizzical streak.
The One That Started It All
93–82 win over Philadelphia, February 28, 2013
Joakim Noah, once the core force of the Bulls and now the owner of the NBA’s most ludicrous contract on the league’s most dysfunctional team, went off for 23 points, 21 rebounds, and 11 (!) blocks, something only two other players have done in NBA history. This was the season Derrick Rose missed after knee surgery, and, on this night, it was the big men who would lead the Bulls to a much-needed victory thanks also to Carlos Boozer, then still a competent NBA player, who poured in 21 points and racked up 12 boards. Chicago was facing a mediocre 76ers team that was not yet in the clutch of the Process-hungry Sam Hinkie. Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday were its cornerstones. 2013, everybody.
The Ones Where They Beat LeBron
107–87 win over Miami, December 5, 2013
113–98 win over Cleveland, February 12, 2015
97–95 win over Cleveland, October 27, 2015
99–93 win over Cleveland, March 30, 2017
The last TNT home game the Bulls lost came against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in February 2013. Dwyane Wade is here to remind us all, in case we forgot.
Ever since, the Bulls have turned the United Center into LeBron’s house of horrors. The Bulls, losers of six of their last seven coming into the December game, beat the LeBron-led Heat by 20 points. Chicago led by as many as 25 at one point, and its own Big Three of Taj Gibson, Boozer, and Luol Deng combined for 66, while Wade sat out with an injury and LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Ray Allen could muster only 40 points together.
James went back to Cleveland and won a title, but still hasn’t brought down the Bulls’ streak. The Cavs have faced their conference foe on TNT in Chicago three times since 2015, with the most memorable matchup coming on opening night that year with President Barack Obama in attendance. The game went down to the wire and ended with Pau Gasol absorbing a LeBron drive and swatting away his layup attempt to secure the win.
The Cavs have been championship contenders these past few seasons, while the tumultuous Bulls have declined toward mediocrity, making their underdog victories in all of those games, including their latest, which saved their 2016–17 season, that much more improbable.
The Ones That Defied History
104–81 win over San Antonio, January 22, 2015
95–91 win over San Antonio, December 8, 2016
In 2015, the Bulls, riding a two-game losing streak, welcomed San Antonio to the United Center. They beat the Spurs by 23 and snapped their opponent’s four-game winning streak. Kawhi Leonard led his team with just 16 points, while Chicago had six players with 12 or more points. It was San Antonio’s most lopsided loss of the season.
Two seasons later, the Spurs won their first 13 road games. The 14th win would have tied an NBA record. Too bad it was scheduled on a Thursday night in Chicago on national TV. The Bulls starters all scored in double digits, while the Spurs shot 1-of-11 from 3 in the first half, falling behind by 18 at one point before losing by four. This win turned skeptics of the streak, which was first noticed by Jason Patt a year earlier, into believers.
The One That Makes You Laugh
94–87 win over Golden State, March 2, 2017
No team is safe. The TNT Bulls have beaten the Celtics three times (January 7, 2016, October 27, 2016, and February 16, 2017), the Thunder twice (March 5, 2015, and November 5, 2015), the Clippers once (December 10, 2015), and even the 51-win Knicks back in April 2013 when there was hope in New York — plus the aforementioned LeBron-led teams and Spurs.
Add the Golden State superteam to the list. The Warriors entered the United Center following a loss and without having lost two straight in 146 regular-season games. (Reminder: The Warriors blew a 3–1 lead.) The Bulls knocked them off in a game where Steph Curry missed nine of his 11 3s and Jimmy Butler scored 22 points to break the Warriors’ streak and extend Chicago’s own with win no. 19 at home on TNT.
The Playoffs Upset One
106–102 win over the Celtics in Boston, April 16, 2017
Sunday’s playoff game may not technically count toward the streak, but as the Bulls’ many wild, unprecedented games above show, weird things seem to happen when they collaborate with Turner. To wit: This is a streak that has featured Mike Dunleavy getting elbowed in the face, receiving stitches, and returning to the game to go off on the Rockets. It’s featured Nate Robinson (remember him?) and even Tony Snell getting hot and winning games single-handedly. We even had an E’Twaun Moore game winner.
Sunday, it was Bobby Portis who showed up to haunt Danny Ainge for his selection of Terry Rozier over Portis in the draft two years ago. Portis drained three 3s off the bench on his way to 19 points and nine rebounds for Chicago.
The TNT regular-season streak is safe until next season. The Bulls made sure of that, despite barely squeezing into the playoffs. Now, they’re up a game on the top team in the East by record and are set to play Games 2 and 4 on TNT.
The Bulls are not fun, but we’re stuck with them for at least four more games, so embrace the streak. Embrace the movement.