As with most aspects to this up-and-down season, which lately has the Bulls hovering around the .500 mark, this is a delicate time.
On the one hand, the dog days of the season officially are here, the time when one eye can drift to the All-Star break or lingering injuries like Jimmy Butler's right heel contusion — one he probably would play through in the playoffs — are given the proper time to heal.
On the other hand, the Bulls are trying to respond to and recover from Dwyane Wade and Butler calling out their teammates for a lack of commitment after the Jan. 25 home collapse to the Hawks. When Rajon Rondo questioned the leadership style of those two in an Instagram post, management handed down fines, issues were aired out in a Jan. 27 team meeting and the Bulls briefly replaced the Knicks as the national picture of dysfunction.
The Bulls entered Friday's late tipoff against the Suns just 3-3 since that team meeting. But that has included an overtime loss to the Rockets without Butler and a loss to the Warriors without Butler and Wade.
The belief that the Bulls are playing better since that meeting — sharing the ball, playing with pace, rebounding with authority — extends beyond the locker room.
"That's a tough team," Warriors said Steve Kerr said.
Wade, who was to return Friday night after missing the Warriors' loss with an upper respiratory infection, is pleased with how the team has responded.
Photos of Dwyane Wade, who signed with the Bulls after a 13-year run with the Heat.
"It's about keeping your spirits high, staying motivated, whatever the case may be," Wade said. "Guys have to continue to keep that same mindset that we had. Continue to play hard. Continue to play together. And we give ourselves a chance to win. That doesn't mean we'll win every one. But you can feel better about the effort that's put out that we've been playing with the last few games."
Following the clunker home loss to the Heat on Feb. 27, a game players openly said they weren't emotionally prepared to play following the meeting, the Bulls scored 112 or more points in four straight games for the first time since January 1996.
"I've liked our pace, our commitment to getting out and running," coach Fred Hoiberg said. "Guys are doing a good job of sharing the basketball and playing for each other. That's how we have to play if want to have a chance of moving on past the regular season. Those are the little things we have to do when you're playing for each other and hopefully go on a run."
Wade said he isn't 100 percent but well enough to play. That he's playing at less than 100 percent while in the midst of the NBA's dog days is a good sign for a team that bordered on fracturing.
Even some of the post-practice togetherness that defined the early portion of the season returned following Friday's morning shootaround, with players competing in a light-hearted competition involving basketballs getting thrown at various objects.
"I believe in (dog days). I think everyone is different," Wade said. "I think it depends on your body what dog days you're going through. But I think people looking to get to the break to get some rest, that's a real thing. If it's not, it has been programmed into my mind since my rookie year."
After the Suns' game, the Bulls face the Timberwolves on the road and Raptors and Celtics at home before the All-Star break. Both Hoiberg and Wade noted the oddity of having just 25 games on the other side of it.
"Normally you're in the 30-35 range," Wade said. "So it's definitely go time after that."
The Bulls hope as a team united.
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