Derrick Rose was already lost for the season, the Brooklyn Nets were playing like $180 million busts, and nobody else looked like a real challenger.
So when Miami and Indiana met for the first time on Dec. 10 and the game was hyped as an Eastern Conference finals preview, there seemed little reason to argue.
Tom Thibodeau did, anyway.
A lot can change in an NBA season, the Chicago coach said the next night, and how teams start may not be how they finish. With the Heat and Pacers no longer looking untouchable, and the Bulls, Nets and Raptors playing better basketball for quite some time, maybe this is what he meant.
"You never know how seasons are going to unfold. You don't know how teams will develop. You don't know how they'll improve," Thibodeau said Sunday. "So then at the end, it comes down to how well you're playing and your overall health. So often times, teams find their way."
Chicago has rebounded from losing Rose to another knee surgery, and later trading Luol Deng, to go 35-15 since Jan. 1, a .700 winning percentage that is best in the East. Brooklyn is 34-15 and Toronto has gone 33-18.
That's more than half a season with better records than Miami (30-19) and Indiana (30-21), who haven't been sharp down the stretch.
"I do think over the course of a long period of time, it does tell you how a team is playing," Thibodeau said. "So if you're looking at 30 or 40 games, which way are they trending? Now that doesn't mean it can't change. Often times in this league it does change."
It did in 1999, when the Knicks team he was an assistant on got healthy just before the playoffs and reached the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. That helped convince him never to call a race too early.
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