- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- It was too soon to size them up, not yet time to see which of the Chicago Bulls were in the best shape and who looked bulked up after a too-long offseason.
But six months after he last stepped foot in the Berto Center, Derrick Rose showed up Thursday with shoulders that just keep getting broader, not merely able to carry the mantle of his MVP trophy but apparently still toting the weight of last season's Eastern Conference finals loss.
"We were in the games that we lost, but like I've said, it's on me," Rose said.
He was, of course, speaking of the 4-1 series loss to the Miami Heat, a series in which the Bulls were consistently outplayed in the fourth quarter, including a Game 5 that saw the victors use a 19-4 run to stun both the United Center crowd and players on both teams.
While he was buoyant at the end of a labor impasse that will shorten this NBA season to 66 games, it also was plenty clear that Rose will try to use his self-imposed burdens to propel him to greater heights.
"We're fine," Rose said when asked whether the level of the rest of the team has to rise to meet his own. "With my teammates we have right now, we made it that far. It wasn't my teammates' fault that we lost last year; it was me. Me not making the plays and me not playing smart enough throughout the whole game. I think last year is going to help me grow this year as a player."
He has been working on everything, Rose said, listing his "basketball IQ" first but also including his post-up and isolation game. "Working at the elbows off, trying to get fouled, get to the lane and put pressure on the defense," he added.
The media was not privy to Rose's first embrace with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, but they missed each other during their time apart, that much is sure.
"Just talking to him every day, picking his mind, him picking my mind, just everything about Thibs," Rose said. "Just pushing me as a player, me pushing him as a coach, and I know he's going to have us prepared when the season starts."
The first news flash of the Bulls season was that Thibodeau went home for Thanksgiving and presumably ate dinner like a regular person, maybe even watched Ndamukong Suh stomp on the Packers lineman.
But not to worry.
He already has calculated how many days he will have to prepare from the end of last season to the start of this one. "I believe there will be 213 days from May 26 to Dec. 25," he said.
And you knew little has changed when he was asked how much tape he watched during all of that time.
"There's never enough," he said.
The fact is, while it is reasonable to be optimistic about the Bulls' chances in a shortened season since it also is reasonable to assume that Rose will have fresher legs, that Carlos Boozer will have less time to get injured and that the team is now comfortably entrenched in Thibs' system, this is Chicago, and so we worry.
Will the extended offseason present more problems than benefits?
"When I look back to '98-99," Thibodeau said, reflecting on the league's previous lockout, "there were a lot of guys that came in out of shape. There were a lot of injuries early on. The one thing when you're faced with a season like this, you have to maximize your time, your team meetings, your shootarounds. Your concentration level has to be extremely high because when you're looking at a number of back-to-backs, your practice time is very limited, so you have to make the most of that time.
"It also affects your rest because now if you play a back-to-back, the next day you may look at as a practice day but maybe now you'll be taking that day off. But hopefully your players are in great shape."
Camp begins Dec. 9, and it will be the teams in the best shape, Thibodeau said, that will be the ones with the greatest chances to win.
For Rose, it is and should be all about staying strong throughout the playoffs.
"I'm trying everything -- pushups, sit-ups, all that stuff trying to get in better shape, trying to have strength for the playoffs," he said. "[Thibodeau] always says, 'Try to have an end-of-season mentality' where, when we start off, we're playing like it's the playoffs. Right now, I'm talking to the trainer, just making sure I stay in the training room all day, every day, so I can get stronger."
Of course, some of that playoff exhaustion could be alleviated with another scorer, ideally -- all together now -- a 2-guard who could create off the dribble. But Rose was having none of it.
"I'm fine with Keith [Bogans]," he said. "Keith's my guy. I'm rolling with Keith."
Which is not to say general manager Gar Forman isn't actively pursuing help in free agency. But to the Bulls' advantage, there is no one on the market who alone can tip the power balance of the Eastern Conference.
It's still the Bulls and Heat, and then the Knicks and Celtics. Not because the Bulls are such an obvious Finals contender as much as because the first player in the building Thursday continues to think it's all his fault they weren't still playing in June.
"I'm hard on myself," Rose said. "Any mistake I do during a game, I think that everything is my fault. I don't really look at others. I hold myself [responsible] for everything ... because I have the ball the majority of the time. ... I think that when I pass to people and they make a bad shot or whatever, I think it's my fault because I put them in that position. Being a point guard, you think that way.
"With the team, I think we're fine. I have to come back a better player."
You get the feeling he will.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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