Opening Tip: Injuries change Bulls' outlook

CHICAGO -- In a season full of low points, the Chicago Bulls hit another Tuesday night. Not only did they lose an ugly 78-74 game to the lowly Milwaukee Bucks, they appeared as lifeless on the floor as they've been in a while.

Hampered by injury problems throughout the season, the Bulls look and sound like a team that's just ready to play out the remaining schedule.

The problem is they still have 63 games.

There are a host of reasons why this once-proud team has fallen on hard times. Losing Derrick Rose for the season due to a knee injury has rocked Tom Thibodeau's team into an emotional rut from which they can't seem to dig out. The Bulls also are playing without Joakim Noah (knee contusion), Luol Deng (Achilles) and Jimmy Butler (turf toe).

Any team would struggle with that amount of talent out of the lineup, and the Bulls, as evidenced by their 8-11 record, are no different. But their collective mindset appears to have changed as the injuries have piled up.

No longer can Thibodeau sell his players on being able to contend for a championship this season. The Bulls have always been a prideful group with veterans like Deng and Noah leading the way, but pride is all they can play for the rest of the season, and that reality is starting to set in throughout the locker room.

So often over the last three years, several Bulls played through various injuries. They would find ways to be on the floor no matter how much discomfort they were in. They didn't want to disappoint Thibodeau or let down their teammates. They knew they were playing for something more every time they went onto the court; they knew they were playing for a shot at a championship.

When Rose went down in Portland on Nov. 22, the Bulls' championship aspirations went down with him. That's the part that Thibodeau, ever the motivator, is having a hard time getting his team past right now.

That's also what will cause Thibodeau more frustration than ever.

Players like Deng and Noah are too proud and have too much respect for the game to sit out a contest just because they don't want to play. Butler wants to be back on the floor to be in the fight with his teammates again.

But maybe Rose's injury has reminded all three players, and the rest of the Bulls' locker room, that there are more important issues at play than dragging yourself onto the floor for a relatively meaningless game in December.

If a player has an injury, maybe he'll listen to his body a little more in light of what has happened to Rose. That remains to be seen in what has become a lost season for this organization. Thibodeau would never intentionally make his players play if he knew they were injured, and almost all of the players in his locker room are too proud to sit if they aren't hurting badly.

But where is the line?

Every pro sports franchise deals with that question over the course of a season. But rarely does a team built around one superstar go from having championship expectations to really no expectations at all in one fell swoop, as has happened to the Bulls over the course of the past few weeks.

How hard are Thibodeau's players willing to push after going through the emotional roller coaster of last season?

Rose's possible return hovered over this team all year because the players and coaches were convinced that at some point he would bring them back to prominence. Now that he has been ruled out for the season, the rest of the players are trying to figure out exactly what they are playing for.

They killed themselves last season while trying to play through injuries. They gutted out a memorable Game 7 win against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round before being bounced in the second round by the Miami Heat.

The Bulls' players still respect Thibodeau for the job he has done and they still want to win, but are they willing to win at all costs and sacrifice their bodies the way they have in the past?

Are they willing to push their bodies to the max to possibly reach the second round again? Is that worth it to them?

Are they worrying more now about their futures than they did before?

Will Thibodeau be able to deal with the fact that his players may not want to play through all the aches and pains that they have put up with in recent years?

All of these questions will be answered in due time. But one certainty for the Bulls now is that the answers are more complicated than ever.