Commentary

Roseless nights a scary prospect

Defense and depth will only get the Bulls so far without their superstar

Updated: April 11, 2012, 8:56 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It was another night of Chicago Bulls basketball without Derrick Rose.

Maybe my mind is mush like a basketball after John Lucas III gets done with it, but I swear the last time I saw Rose play in person was at a Beasley Elementary game.

As Rose, who wanted to play on a recovering sprained ankle, sits and stews over missed games, the season is starting to blend together. In my mind's eye, all I see is JL3 for 3 on a continuous loop.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau hasn't let the Bulls use injuries as an excuse.

With Rose watching from the locker room, the Thibs Train rolled on for another win without his star guard, beating the New York Knicks 98-86 on Tuesday night, and avenging the 100-99 Sunday loss in New York in Rose's cameo return to the lineup.

Chicago went 3-1 against the Knicks this season, and as it stands now, the two teams would meet up again in the first round. It won't be an easy series for the top seed, that's for sure.

Carmelo Anthony looks comfortable, scoring 29 after dropping 43 on the Bulls at Madison Square Garden, and the Knicks' defense is playoff-worthy.

But on Tuesday the Bulls (44-14) controlled the glass, one of the few things they can do well without Rose, and they controlled the turnovers, which doomed them in New York.

The Bulls' effort was, as usual, impressive. Luol Deng did a Deng-up job with 19 points and 10 rebounds (four offensive) in 40 minutes, Rip Hamilton shed the R.I.P. label, scoring 18 of his 20 in the third quarter, and the bench came through with play worthy of the "Bench Mob" moniker.

Chicago is now 16-7 with Rose out, the best and worst statistic I can give you. It's great the Bulls have the depth to win without the reigning MVP but that doesn't make it fulfilling to watch on a nightly basis. And it doesn't mean you shouldn't be worried about him and the Bulls come playoff time.

There are eight games left before the playoffs begin. And you just can't snap your fingers and hope the latter comes with the former. We saw that in New York. Rose is too good not to snap into shape, but against New York, a slow start could spell a seven-game series.

"That's the challenge that we face now," Thibodeau said before the game, when Rose was technically a "game-time" decision. "He's missed well over 20 games; Rip has missed more."

But before Thibodeau started being honest, he went back to Thibs-speak: No excuses.

"We feel really good about our team," he said. "We've dealt with it all season long. We feel great about our depth, so we'll deal with it accordingly. We prefer to have everybody. If we're down people, our bench has been great."

As the season lumbers along, the seams holding this team together have become visible. That's to be expected. With Rose and Hamilton missing so many games, bench players' minutes have increased. The equilibrium has wavered. But not Tuesday night.

The bench was great again Tuesday, dominating a 25-10 second quarter and coming through in the fourth. The Bulls' bench outscored New York's bench 33-18, which is to say five Bulls outscored J.R. Smith 33-14.

The other three bench players for New York went a combined 1-for-11 from the field. Steve Novak made two late free throws and Bill Walker scored to end the game.

But it wasn't just about offense for the bench players. Omer Asik had zero points, two rebounds and only played 9 minutes, 11 seconds. But the Bulls outscored New York 14-3 during his six minutes of second-quarter play. His block of a Tyson Chandler dunk midway through the quarter turned into a Kyle Korver 3-pointer and a 33-27 Bulls lead following a 13-1 run.

Taj Gibson scored only four points with four rebounds in 24:43, but he was a plus-16.

Gibson and Asik continue to be among the league leaders in defensive points per possession, one of those Synergy Sports stats that confuse me like an Unfrozen Caveman Columnist. All I know is it means they're good.

Korver scored 11 points in the fourth, and while he didn't bring out the team-issued finger guns after each shot, he deservedly celebrated a couple. The Bulls needed his offense, because Hamilton was leashed to the bench in the fourth, but the three blocks and seven rebounds were an added bonus.

With Rose out and few players capable of carrying the offense on a solo basis, Thibodeau likes to preach three pillars of winning: rebounding, defense and limited turnovers. Against the Knicks on Sunday, the Bulls only rebounded and they couldn't even do that during the most critical point of the game.

But on Tuesday, the Bulls outrebounded New York 51-33, and 18-5 on offensive rebounds, which gave them a 25-5 edge in second-chance points. So that's a check.

The Bulls held New York to 42.5 percent shooting, including a 4-for-21 showing in the 25-10 second quarter. The Bulls scored 19 points on 17 turnovers. So that's a check too.

The Bulls had 12 turnovers, five in the first quarter, four in the second, three in the third and zero in the fourth. Zero fourth-quarter turnovers? Another check.

"The defense was good, I thought the rebounding was outstanding. We took care of the ball," Thibodeau said.

I guess he agrees.

The Knicks got the win Sunday thanks to a four-shot possession in overtime that resulted in an Anthony 3-pointer. Did Thibodeau bring that up at the shootaround?

"It may have been mentioned a couple times, yeah," Thibodeau said with a smile.

With Rose out, Hamilton had the best game of his erratic Bulls tenure, carrying the offense after it went into halftime with a 12-point lead. He's not a one-on-one scorer, but when Hamilton is in rhythm, it's still a sight to see. His 18 points in a quarter are a Bulls season high, and he did it on 6-for-10 shooting.

It helped that Hamilton played the whole third quarter. He's on a pretty tight minutes leash that has to be coming from the front office. After three quarters he was at 20:35, right around the perceived limit, and he didn't see the floor in the fourth.

"You can see his rhythm coming around," Thibodeau said. "Twenty points in 20 minutes. He was outstanding."

I asked Thibodeau if he could have played Hamilton in the fourth quarter, say if Korver wasn't conscious, but he didn't really answer. I should've asked him if he would've had to track down Lindsey Hunter to ask Gar Forman if he could play Hamilton more, but that's an old joke from the Del Negro era.

Forman, the Bulls' general manager, and vice president of basketball John Paxson had a close eye on Rose and his sprained ankle (suffered in Sunday's loss) before the game as he tried to warm up. Rose, who has missed time with four different injuries, seemed committed to trying to play, shooting and jogging up and down the half-court before the game.

Shortly before he was done shooting jumpers with an inch of air beneath him, Paxson, Forman and trainer Fred Tedeschi left the court to huddle up in the team's X-ray room adjacent to the locker room. They looked very serious, like they were about to have an intervention.

Exactly an hour before the scheduled game time, Rose trudged from the court to the room like he was being called to the principal's office. He gave a few reporters a nod and disappeared behind the doors. If he was on the bench during the game, I didn't see him.

"He's feeling pretty good," Thibodeau said. "I just think it was the smart thing to do in this situation. If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of caution. He wanted to play and we felt it was best that he didn't."

The Bulls managed another win without Rose, but it's clear he needs some playing time before the playoffs begin. With a deep bench, a healthy Hamilton and Thibodeau pulling the strings, the top-seeded Bulls should be peaking.

Chicago has become kind of a fantasy camp for basketball purists around the league. Everyone plays defense, even Carlos Boozer tries. The superstar is a no-nonsense guy and the coach runs the show.

But once the playoffs begin, reality encroaches as well. And no matter how good Asik is at guarding the rim, the Bulls don't make it out of the Eastern Conference playoffs without Rose. Maybe not out of the first round.

Eight games left. It's getting serious.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.