CHICAGO – The updates are coming more frequently now, and with each one, ever so briefly, the clouds that have hung over the Chicago Bulls’ season part. That’s when the sweet sunshine comes beaming through.
Derrick Rose is coming back. Every day, every hour, every minute, heck, every second, Rose and the Bulls get closer to a reunion that is expected to transform their season and restore Chicago to its rightful place at or near the top of the Eastern Conference.
“He’s in drills every morning with me,” forward Taj Gibson said Monday after the Bulls’ blowout home victory over Cleveland. “Every morning, going full steam. It just feels like he never left. He’s doing everything that he’d normally do. It’s been great the last couple weeks.”
The progress has been steady, the pace consistent, with new challenges and freedoms added, each in their own time. One week, Rose is shooting flat-footed. Then he’s cutting laterally in drill work. Or dunking behind closed doors. Lately, Rose has been been participating in walk-throughs, even speaking up at halftimes.
The volume of the reports is intensifying, even if the timetable for the ex-MVP point guard’s first taste of NBA action hasn’t budged: Rose still isn’t expected back until after All-Star weekend, which means late February or early March.
The Bulls have a nice three-game homestand beginning Feb. 26 against Cleveland, with only one set of back-to-backs over the subsequent 26 days. The Cavaliers game would mark 10 months exactly from the date Rose tore the anterior-cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee in Game 1 of the playoffs against Philadelphia. That puts it smack in the 8-to-12-month range surgeon Brian Cole laid out after Rose’s May 12 repair.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman and coach Tom Thibodeau talked Monday of Rose’s next test: regular practice. Once he is cleared for that, he will be monitored closely both on the court and in recovery.
At the moment, Rose is doing “predictable contact.” “It’s knowing what’s coming,” Thibodeau explained to reporters. “He’s handled that part great. He’s done a little 1-on-1. But everyone has to be patient.”
Currently, Chicago has the closest thing to a controlled environment an NBA team gets in-season; over the four weeks that began Monday, the Bulls play every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, with Tuesdays and Thursdays open for practice or treatment. That’s followed by a four-day gap between games Feb. 3-6.
Everyone should know a lot more after that.
“We have to feel good about this,” Thibodeau said. “The most important thing is he has to feel really good about it.”
The second-best news for the Bulls is that Rose’s physical work has gone predictably, with no setbacks beyond the normal hiccups of rehab. His spirits apparently are fine, too. Last week, when he finally traveled with Chicago for games in Orlando and Miami, Bulls fans were excited to see him, to the point that a “Peekaboo Derrick Rose” meme has been popping up online.
Reports from inside the walls of the Berto Center practice facility suggest a determined, driven and still upbeat All-Star franchise guy.
“It’s great to see him smiling, running around with the team, man,” second-year swingman Jimmy Butler said. “Because he’s a leader and leaders don’t only lead when they’re on the court. They want to be around the guys off the court.”
The best Bulls news, though, is that the team is doing everything in its power to stay appealing – wait, more than that, poised and ready – for Rose’s return. At 19-13, Chicago sat tied with Indiana atop the NBA Central prior to Tuesday’s action, only a game behind No. 3 Atlanta and just four off Miami’s 23-9 pace.
As you’d expect under Thibodeau, they rank fifth in defensive rating (101.5) and in the top 10 in most defensive sub-categories, from field-goal percentage (.432) to opponents’ assists (590).
Nobody’s delusional, mind you. By the time Chicago lost 13 times last season, it had 42 wins. The Bulls skidded out of 2012, losing three of their final four in December and beating only Washington. Frankly, they’ve had some real clunkers – a United Center loss to New Orleans, a three-game road slide right before Thanksgiving, that Christmas debacle at home against Houston and the game that ended Charlotte’s 18-game losing streak.
Scoring points, particularly down the stretch, remains an adventure without Rose available to create something from nothing or bail them out deep into the shot clock.
But they’ve been getting strong, even inspired play from the guys up front – Luol Deng (17.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 40.3 mpg), Joakim Noah (12.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 38.9 mpg) and Carlos Boozer (15.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg). Richard Hamilton is back after a four-week injury absence. And the bench, while not quite the “Bench Mob” of the past two seasons, has offered up some valuable and promising play from Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. (Kirk Hinrich, who has had six different injuries so far, will benefit most when Rose returns to soak up some minutes.)
Chicago’s victory at Miami Friday was a rouser, built on a 20-rebound advantage. They have beaten New York twice and last spring’s playoff foes from Philadelphia twice, too.
“We’ve been doing this for the last two years,” Gibson said. “Last year, we beat a lot of great teams when Derrick went down.” Rose missed 27 games with a variety of ailments.
“It’s all about guys understanding that we need to get reps, we need to work toward everybody’s strengths and get guys a lot of confidence,” Gibson said. “Carlos, Joakim and Luol are playing their tails off and we’re getting other guys better in the long run.”
If Rose returns by March 1, he and the Bulls will have 24 games to work through any rust and minutes limitations. They likely won’t be working from, or toward, their customary spot as the East’s No. 1 seed, but they still could be a dangerous playoff draw.
Assuming Rose can cope with some inevitable off games, and that Deng, Noah and Boozer can stay healthy, the Bulls might surprise the fans whose hopes had shifted to October 2013 and beyond. As Forman likes to point out, when Chicago has those three frontcourt players and Rose healthy in the same game, it wins 85 percent of the time.
“We understand that we just have to hold down the house,” Gibson said. “That’s what Thibs said: ‘We’re not going to have a sloppy house. We’re going to be the same team we’ve always been.’
“Whenever Derrick does come back, I just want him to be right. Everybody just has to be patient. When he’s ready, he’ll come back. And when he comes back, he’ll be ready.”
If all goes well, Rose will be back sometime near or after the NBA’s Feb. 21 trading deadline. Few teams, if any, will be able to match that acquisition.