The past week saw the 2007 NBA Playoffs move into the second round, with San Antonio, Utah and Cleveland all up 2-1, with the Spurs / Suns a superbly high-grade series – one worthy of the Conference Finals in fact.

Unfortunately, I was completely out of touch for most of the action this week, as I had a whirlwind business trip to Indonesia.

So in order to find out what was going on, I reached for the local language newspaper, which summed up the series against the Pistons with one concise headline – Bulls Takluk.

There are many reasons to explain the Bulls’ 3-1 hole they find themselves in after 3 gut-wrenching losses and 1 impressive win this afternoon at the United Center;

1. Chicago aren’t really that good.
2. Detroit are playing so well they’d be 3-1 up over anyone.
3. Experience and teamwork will invariably defeat raw talent and enthusiasm.

Baloney, bollocks, balderdash.

This series, moreso than either of the 2 first-round sweeps the Bulls and Pistons both enjoyed just 2 short weeks ago, is a high-quality exhibition of playoff basketball.  And, despite all the hype leading into the series, it’s certainly not a replication of any of the dirty, cheap-shot throwback behavior of the days of the Bad Boys and the Jordan Rules.  Those were classic games – ones worthy of any fan’s DVD collection – but the fact is the game is not played that way anymore.  This is an intense yet clean, passionate yet professional display of modern-day sport.

Detroit were been able to win each of the first 3 the games, but they certainly didn’t disrespect their opponent.  And Chicago were defeated by a combined 54 points, but they certainly didn’t throw in the towel or stop trying, as we saw in game 4.

Yes, the Pistons are a superb, unselfish, team.  Yes, they have played together for years.  Yes, their bench is chock full of veteran savvy.  Yes, they play concerted defense and selfless offense.

Chicago are a quality outfit, they’re just not yet able to play at that extra level the Pistons have elevated their game to.  Supposedly intelligent media comment that refers to Detroit having ‘a switch’ with which they can turn on their elite play is facile, but these players certainly have been here before – in 2005 when they won the Championship, and in the first half of the 2005/06 season when they started 40-4.  They know what to do.

This is a team that enjoys playing together, trusts each other, and knows how to win playoff basketball.  They’re a formidable opponent.

And this is where the only similarity between the current Detroit / Chicago rivalry and the great enmity of the late 80’s / early 90’s lies.  The Pistons have what the Bulls want.

For Chicago to make it to the top, they have to go through Detroit.  Not Miami anymore, not Cleveland yet… Detroit are the benchmark.  And, as with the previous era, when the Bulls finally become powerful enough to defeat the Pistons, expect them to become a dominant team in their own right.  The heat of a refining fire is intense, but not unbearable, and if you’re strong enough to withstand it the rewards are great.

John Paxson, who was part of the team that defeated Joe Dumars in 1991, is well aware of what it takes to dethrone an elite opponent.  And since his strategy cannot involve Michael Jordan, he’s been forced to think inventively in compiling his team.

Last summer, defensive specialists Ben Wallace and PJ Brown arrived in town, marking the end of the Tyson Chandler era and signalling Chicago’s focus as a defense-first ballclub.

And in last years’ draft, Paxson turned the 2nd pick into Tyrus Thomas and Portland’s future 2nd rounder, and also nabbed Thabo Sefolosha in another adept draft day deal.

Gordon (3rd pick), Deng (7th) and Duhon (38th) all were drafted in 2004, and an unknown hustler called Andres Nocioni was nabbed as an undrafted free agent the same year.

In 2003, Kirk Hinrich was picked 7th, in the same draft that eventual teammate Michael Sweetney was taken 9th by the Knicks.

And it was this decision to trade Eddie Curry to New York that, more than any other move (even the Wallace signing), will define Paxson’s tenure in charge of the Chicago Bulls.  What’s more, the effect of this deal is yet to be fully consummated, as the tantalising promise of a future lottery pick dangles just out of reach.  It’s a level of talent insurance that no other team in the league enjoys, except maybe Phoenix, who may get Atlanta’s pick this year.

So despite having 9 lottery picks in the space of 6 years, the Bulls are a perfect example of the need to build a competitive team with a plan rather than approaching NBA success as a fantasy league or check-book exercise.  Just look at the former Chicago lottery picks from the past 7 years who aren’t part of this team’s success – Brand, Fizer, Williams, Crawford, Curry, Chandler.  That’s a team in itself.  And a highly paid (yet critically flawed) one, too.

Paxson drafted guys from respected college programs – Duke, UConn, Kansas.  Paxson quickly cut ties with players who didn’t, or couldn’t, work – Crawford, Curry, Tim Thomas.  Paxson was willing to give up resources to secure players his team of scouts knew the team wanted – Thomas, Sefolosha, Khryapa, even Deng.  Paxson signed free agents who would act as leaders to his lottery picks, and give his young team respect in the eyes of both opponents and referees – Wallace, Brown, Adrian Griffin.

So maybe the Bulls aren’t yet as polished or as stable as the 2006 Detroit Pistons, but in the years to come, this is a team that is built to surpass them.  Last summer’s decision to pay Ben Wallace $60 million wasn’t just for the value he would bring to the Bulls, it also represented the value the Pistons would lose.  Even now, Wallace’s photo is used twice at, such is the deep connection Detroit fans have with the man.

If it weren’t for the serendipitous mid-season addition of Chris Webber - which was simultaneously a great piece of general managership by Dumars and an imbalanced contractual anomaly the league needs to review – the gap between these teams would be even closer.  And with Billups and Webber free agents this summer, the challenge for the Pistons will be to retain their team, whilst the Bulls will be improving even further.  Chicago were already good enough to take 3 of 4 contests during the regular season, and coming into this series were looking forward to the challenge of comparing how far they’ve come against the formidable Pistons.

And this is why the series, even if it ends in defeat, will be a valuable exercise for this Bulls team.  They learnt how to attack a zone defense, they learnt how to protect the paint, they learnt how to execute under pressure and they learnt that being decisive with the ball is not the same as being selfish.

Chicago have better youth, better depth, better draft position, better salary cap and better trade assets.  All they lack is experience and refinement.  And thanks to this series against the reviled Detroit Pistons, they’re learning.  Fast.