Commentary

Rose out (really), but Bulls are all-in

Resilient bunch chugs toward playoffs without star who would make them elite

Updated: March 25, 2014, 11:24 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose was the main attraction before Monday night's Chicago Bulls-Indiana Pacers game at the United Center.

To paraphrase a classic line from "The Simpsons," Rose was back in ... bobblehead form.

No, he wasn't immortalized in cheap ceramic, wearing a suit, staring impassively at the court.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/Getty ImagesBull brass was quick to squash a weekend rumor that Derrick Rose was expected back this season.

Yes, the real Rose is still out for the season.

We learned our lesson last season with the Return, didn't we?

A minor note in a New York Daily News basketball column over the weekend stirred some good old-fashioned Rose rumor-exorcising in Chicago on Monday.

From the story: "It's no joke -- the Bulls really are expecting Derrick Rose to make it back from his latest knee injury in time for the playoffs."

Of course, no one was laughing in Chicago. Nor was anyone hopeful that this throwaway line was a harbinger for the Real Return 2014.

The past two seasons have led to a Rose rumor fatigue, and even when Rose refuses to rule himself out, as he did earlier in the season, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has quickly and mercilessly squashed any fanciful talk.

Then again, Thibs might not admit there's a game in the evening until the morning shootaround is over. But unlike last year's public-relations fiasco, the Bulls have been very up front about Rose's status since Rose underwent surgery to repair to a medial meniscus tear in his right knee in late November: He's not coming back this season.

Thibodeau repeated it again before the Bulls went out Monday and walloped the Pacers 89-77. Bulls general manager Gar Forman assured me they weren't pulling the mesh jersey over the eyes of those watching warm-ups.

Given that Rose hasn't practiced fully yet -- according to the team, anyway -- it would seem unlikely that the Bulls would roll him out for the playoffs given how carefully they've managed his rehab over the past two years. Max-contract guys get max medical treatment.

But here's the thing: No one's suffering over the possibility.

The finality of Rose's lost season after just 10 games has long been established in Chicago. And the team that's left without him has been more fun to watch than anyone could've predicted.

So, to clear this up, Rose is out, but the Bulls are -- to borrow a sports cliché -- definitely in for a playoff run, as evidenced by their victory over Indiana. This was a preview of an ugly postseason series, one Chicago believes it could definitely win.

With 11 games left, the Bulls find themselves trying to keep their energy at an even keel going into the playoffs, where their only goal is to try to shock either Miami or Indiana in the second round.

First, though, the Bulls wanted to even the season series with Indiana. Chicago put forth a weak showing Friday in Indianapolis, losing 91-79 in the teams' first meeting since Rose went down in November.

With such bad shooting by both teams for most of the game Monday, it sure felt like March Madness in Chicago.

Even Georgetown's Roy Hibbert was playing like a Hoya in March, going 0-for-5 from the field with five rebounds.

Despite foul trouble, two-time national champion Joakim Noah played 34 minutes, 40 seconds and had his usual stuffed stat line: 10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocked shots. He also added to his lead in CPP (claps per possession), which I believe is a newfangled Synergy stat.

"I was hype tonight, I was hype," Noah said. "I'm hype every night, but I was hype tonight."

Also hype was Taj Gibson, who had a game-high 23 points along with eight rebounds. Gibson set the tone, as they say, with several ferocious dunks. He celebrated made baskets like Happy Gilmore celebrated long drives.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports"I'm hype every night, but I was hype tonight," said Joakim Noah, who has indeed been that for the Bulls since Derrick Rose was lost for the season.

"Taj was a monster," Thibodeau said.

"He wanted this game," Noah said of Gibson. "I think we all did."

As Chicago heads into the playoffs, there is no sense that Rose is coming back to "rescue" this team. Like, at all.

Thanks to some communications breakdowns and unnecessary secrecy, no one knew when or if Rose could play last season, and it drove pretty much everyone crazy. The Rose drama overshadowed the entire team, as to be expected. Rose is the star, after all.

While Rose's return, and lack thereof, was the storyline last season as the Bulls rumbled to the playoffs, this season the story has evolved.

Since the January trade of Luol Deng, the overriding narrative of the team has been its resilience. This is perhaps Thibodeau's best coaching job in four seasons, but the real credit goes to the players.

The story of the Bulls is that they're still a dangerous, if limited, playoff team despite no Rose and no Deng, thanks to the MVP-like ascension of Noah, the addition of D.J. Augustin and the offensive maturation of Gibson. Chicago is 26-13 since Deng was traded.

Meanwhile, the Pacers, who still lead the Eastern Conference by two games over Miami, are fading. Both teams are 7-7 this month and face each other Wednesday.

And I wouldn't be surprised if there's some serious locker room turmoil with the Pacers. Indiana had 11 assists on 27 baskets Monday, a sign of bad ball movement. The Pacers are trying to do "too much on our own," Paul George said.

That's rarely a problem for the Bulls, who fight as a team, but are one star away from being even better than what they were a couple of years ago: the best all-around team in the East.

But unfortunately for them, that star, Derrick Rose, is truly out for the season.

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.

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