- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- When the 2012 NBA champion is crowned, the last team standing may very well turn out to be literally the last team standing.
Never before has it been more fitting to talk about survival of the fittest, for it is looking more and more like it will be the team with the fewest injuries and the one which manages its injuries best that prevails.
Though it's hard to criticize Tom Thibodeau for much -- his Chicago Bulls have stayed atop the standings despite injuries to Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton, among others -- Thibs looks like he's going to be forced to be more cautious when it comes to playing time.
Don't be surprised if, even after Rose (currently sidelined with back spasms) returns to the lineup, his minutes decrease -- particularly at the end of one-sided victories when he should have been used more prudently earlier this season -- and the first sign of back pain warrants a spot on the bench.
At the same time, those who suggest Rose simply sit out against all lesser opponents the rest of the regular season are seriously underestimating the importance of rhythm and timing, and overestimating Rose's ability to dominate under any circumstances.
Pulling the 34-year-old Hamilton out of mothballs come playoff time is one thing. Expecting Rose to maintain the same meteoric skill level at a time of the season when everyone's play must be elevated is quite another.
An active Rose also takes pressure off teammates like Deng, whose injured wrist could very well be a factor before the season is over.
We may also be overrating the resilience of a Bulls team that had everything it could handle against the 10-18 Sacramento Kings, who climbed back from a 19-point deficit with 8:53 remaining in regulation to within two points with 14.8 seconds left.
"Missing Derrick, even though we're winning games, is huge," said Deng, whose pair of free throws, along with two by Kyle Korver in the final 14 seconds, sealed the 121-115 victory in the Bulls' first home game in 18 days. "For myself and everyone else, he makes the game so much easier. When he's not there, you have to work extra [hard]."
Thibodeau looked like he could have chewed through the nearest clipboard after his team allowed a season-high 115 points. But the combination of clinching a spot as the Eastern Conference All-Star team's head coach and pulling out a game they could have easily lost softened his mood afterward.
"We'll take 'em any way we can get 'em," Thibodeau said. "We found a way to win and over the course of the season, you have to win in different ways. Obviously our defense needs a lot of work but overall I am pleased with the win."
Six Bulls finished in double figures, led by Deng's 23 points, and they almost had a seventh with John Lucas' nine points.
Among other things, the fact that the Bulls have done so well with Rose ailing and sidelined makes the anyone-for-Dwight Howard trade talk that much more foolish. We've seen how Howard carries a team and it's not always pretty. Now imagine an injured Rose with Howard but no Deng, Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson.
Old news, perhaps. But while the victories pile up and with Rose's back problem diagnosed as relatively minor, it feels like whining to lament the stress the 24-7 Bulls are under.
"At the end of the day, this is the situation we're in," Deng said. "I think the best thing you can do is get better from it. If we had a choice, we wouldn't want [Derrick] to be hurt but . . . we really think that will help us."
In this season of survival, the Bulls are doing considerably more than just hanging on.
"I think our team has gotten used to guys being out," Thibodeau said. "It happened last year with our big guys and this year it is more perimeter guys, so we have it all covered. We feel very good about our depth and when we're down a man, the next guy steps up and does the job. It's all about having the right guys."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
The grind of this season could catch up to the Bulls at the wrong time.