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Bulls on pace for 54 wins during up-and-down season

Halfway through a season with great expectations, the Bulls are on pace for 54 victories.

The Bulls opened the second half of the regular season Saturday night on pace for 54 victories by dropping their home mark to a pedestrian 12-10 after the Hawks won their 12th straight, 107-99.

In many ways, this has been another odd season thus far.

At times, most notably in a road victory in Memphis and a home win over the Rockets, the Bulls have played like championship contenders. Other times, like in home losses to the Jazz and Magic, they have resembled an unfamiliar low-energy squad that could land anywhere in the unpredictable Eastern Conference.

The Bulls expressed confidence for their championship chances at the season's onset. Here are some reasons to be optimistic and to be concerned as the second half rolls onward:

Derrick Rose is healthy.

Only one of Rose's 11 missed games came from knee soreness. Rose has tuned out outside noise and listened to his body to calm two sprained ankles, a minor hamstring tweak and an illness that cost him the other 10 absences.

It's clear Rose and management are thinking big picture whenever an ailment arises. That his physical gifts look intact and he has flashed moments of greatness has only emboldened the former most valuable player.

"It's only a matter of time," he said. "Y'all are going to be more surprised than I am when it happens. I know what's coming. I just have to stay consistent with my workouts and continue reading the game."

The offense is legitimate.

A rejuvenated Pau Gasol has been a revelation. Jimmy Butler has jumped from wayward shooter to All-Star candidate. Aaron Brooks often produces a point-a-minute off the bench. Heck, even E'Twaun Moore has been hitting critical 3-pointers.

The Bulls' offense is deep and varied, allowing Rose to not always have to play hero ball. That's fortunate since Rose has only shown that ability in spurts as he works his rust off from missing nearly two seasons.

Long-term future is bright.

Nikola Mirotic's skill level is apparent. The Bulls remain high on Doug McDermott, though his rookie season hit a speed bump with arthroscopic knee surgery. And management plans to re-sign Butler next summer, no matter the cost.

The Bulls are developing future core pieces in a win-now mode, although re-signing Rose when his deal is up in 2017 obviously is paramount.

On the other hand ...

The defense is inconsistent.

Entering Saturday, the Bulls had allowed 20 opponents to score 100 or more points. The previous high in coach Tom Thibodeau's first four seasons is 22.

Obviously, the Bulls' improved offense and faster pace has contributed to more points allowed. But Taj Gibson has cited lack of trust and Rose miscommunication for defensive lapses, strong statements from core players.

"It kind of reminds me when we were with Vinny (Del Negro) and we would just play and get stops when we can," Gibson said. "It seems like we only play defense when we want to and we kind of get caught into the shootout and the freelance of just playing because we score so easy. It's a process, something we have to overcome. I think we can flip the switch because we got a great group of guys that really want to get better."

The disjointed vibe remains.

Though the Bulls have avoided major injuries, they've only used their regular lineup 15 times. It's 12-3.

"We've had a lot thrown at us," Thibodeau said. "The injuries are something we have to deal with I guess. There's a lot of work to be done."

Thibodeau has bemoaned the lack of cohesive practice time since the start of training camp. He has been most displeased with the minutes restrictions and occasional practice limitations handed down from management and the medical staffs.

This has only underscored the long-standing tension between Thibodeau and management that may not affect daily communication but hovers over the organization. It's no surprise Thibodeau's answer to everything is to work harder.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who worked under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for years, spoke about the benefits of a conservative approach.

"I think every team in the league is trying to be proactive and aggressive and figure out how to keep our players in a productive, healthy state," Budenholzer said. "Obviously the Spurs have done it for a long time and done it well. Being there, I got to see firsthand the positives — not just for the team, but for the individuals and how it helped them through a season (and) their careers."

Whatever the case, the Bulls and Rose remain confident.

"Give us 10, 15, 20 games, I think we should have a consistent way of how we're going to win games,'' Rose said.

kcjohnson@tribpub.com

Twitter @kcjhoop

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