NEW YORK – The Chicago Bulls’ “practice court” Sunday was a conference room in a midtown Manhattan luxury hotel. The dimensions and lines of one end of a basketball floor were accurately laid out in advance by some experienced Bulls staffers – it’s not an uncommon option for NBA road teams, particularly when more mental than physical preparation is needed. Still, this was tape on carpeting, so by the time a dozen pairs of sneakers got done shuffling across it for an hour, it looked pretty raggedy.
So, for that matter, do the Bulls.
An anniversary of sorts came and went for the Bulls Saturday: From the day after their disastrous Game 1 in the 2012 playoffs to the day after their dismal Game 1 in the 2013 postseason.
Back then, Chicago and its fans were crestfallen because they knew they’d be without the services of MVP point guard Derrick Rose for the foreseeable future.
Now, exactly 51 weeks later, they still are. Crestfallen and without Rose.
No one expected that.
Oh, sure, they might have roughed out that lousiest-case scenario in their heads and covered their butts in official prognoses. Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf made it clear that he’d rather have Rose sit out till October than risk re-injury via a hasty comeback around or after the All-Star break.
But the “eight to 12 months” recovery period put out to the public by Dr. Brian Cole, the Bulls physician who performed Rose’s knee surgery last May 12, always sounded like a safe bracket of time, one that would get media folks and fans to back away from Rose for a spell while allowing wiggle room for maybe an unforeseen physical setback of some kind.
One never came. Yet there the Bulls were Saturday night in Brooklyn, getting smacked in their series opener against the Nets 106-89. With Rose on the bench in street clothes, looking chipper and reportedly sound of game and sound of body, if not sound of mind about those two things as they relate to his delayed return.
“You hope for the best, you plan for the worst,” coach Tom Thibodeau said Sunday afternoon. “The thing is, we don’t want him out there until he’s completely comfortable. And he’s not comfortable. That’s part of what we expected. As long as he continues to work the way he has, I’m good with it.”
Thibodeau didn’t blink, either, when asked about the hit to Rose’s reputation by those who frame his reluctance to play as a lack of courage or commitment to his team .
“It’s not bothersome because I know all that he’s putting into it and I know who he is,” Thibodeau said. “I know his character. And he’s done amazing things for our organization. He’s doing all he can. That’s all you could ever ask a guy to do. So there’s always gonna be some negativity, but I think the vast majority of it is very positive.”
Teammates say the same things — what else do you expect to say, at least publicly, especially since none is named Stephen Jackson or Metta World Peace? They sound satisfied with Rose’s work ethic in rehab, sincere in their trust of his judgment and freed up by the ol’ “you can’t know until you walk in his shoes” qualifier.
So they all talked Sunday about better readiness against Brooklyn in Game 2, about dialing up their defensive intensity and about the crisper execution it will take to cope with the Nets’ multiple weapons (Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams), while generating enough punch-back of their own.
Carlos Boozer continues to run roughshod over the Nets (22.3 ppg on 55.5 percent shooting). Guard Kirk Hinrich (bruised thigh) is expected to start and so is center Joakim Noah, who right foot wasn’t bothering him as much Sunday as the Bulls might have feared. Noah, who started in spite of plantar fasciitis pain, only logged 13:27 with limited effectiveness (four points, five rebounds, one block) but at least his condition didn’t worsen.
Thibodeau said that, even hobbled, Noah can help. “He’s a plus,” the Bulls coach said. “We feed off what he can do defensively, and offensively he has a very unique skill set because of the way he can pass the ball.”
Then there’s Luol Deng, the Bulls’ two-time All Star forward who is no more banged up than he usually is at this time of year but who struggled through a 3-for-11, six-point performance. Deng took responsibility for a “bad game” and wasn’t grabbing the too-many-injuries and no-Rose lifelines tossed to him and his team by media questioners Sunday.
“The way you’re saying it, we may as well pack our bags,” Deng said at one point. “This has been our team all year. We’ve done well with guys out, guys in, and we’ve been able to deal with that. It’s not time to really bring all that up. It’s us against them. Whatever they’re going through, whatever we’re going through really don’t matter.”
Still, for the second time in a year, the Bulls’ postseason is being defined by who they don’t have. The elephant in their room is the 190-pound point guard sitting on their bench.