Injuries not hurting Bulls' bottom line
Victories keep coming even with the team's top talent taking turns on bench
CHICAGO -- Hopefully the Chicago Bulls will not have to find out how they would fare without both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. But they are proving that lacking one at a time, they're still more than capable.
Monday night, with Rose back in the lineup for the first time in the past five games but Deng out indefinitely with an unspecified wrist injury and Taj Gibson out with an ankle sprain, the Bulls continued to show -- at least to the lower echelon of the NBA -- that less than full strength is strong enough.
That's encouraging news for a team that may be looking at its biggest challenge yet as Deng seeks a second opinion on the left wrist he injured Saturday.
Second opinions are not a bad thing. But generally, you seek a second when you didn't like the first, and before the Bulls dismantled the New Jersey Nets, 110-95, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau did not rule out surgery as an option for Deng.
"He's mapping out the course he wants to take," Thibodeau said. "I don't think so, would be my guess. There are people he wants to talk to. He's gone down this road with an injured wrist before [with surgery on his other wrist his rookie season]. My guess is it will be day-to-day."
Fortunately, Thibodeau has players like Rose and Deng who will fight through pain and play through any injury they can. Unfortunately, Thibodeau's guess sounded more like a wish. But it was tough to muster up any serious concern Monday as Rose and the gang rolled over Deron Williams and the 5-13 Nets with an ease only a completely self-assured team can display.
Rose looked only mildly weakened by the turf toe he injured Jan. 14, finishing with 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting and eight assists in 36 minutes, only one minute shy of his season average.
"I was scared to dunk, but other than that, chasing D-Will around, I didn't feel anything," Rose said.
While Rose said he knows the toe will be a factor for the rest of the season, Thibodeau has made it clear that he's going to rely mostly on Rose's word on whether he's OK to play.
"It's really me," Rose confirmed. "I'm the only one who knows if I'm ready to go out. If not, then I sit."
Still, with the Bulls holding a greater-than-double-digit lead from early in the second quarter, you figured Thibodeau would hold Rose's minutes down rather than having four of his five starters in at the end of a 15-point victory. That's Thibs, ever-cautious as the Nets whittled a 19-point lead with 7:56 remaining down to 14 at 5:20, and again from 18 points to 14 with just less than three minutes to play.
But the coach will have to continue to weigh the big picture against Rose's instinctive desire to be out on the court.
"The thing is, in this league, you're going to get bumped and bruised," Thibodeau said of Rose before the game. "If you can play, you play. If you can't, you sit out. He's shown he has the ability to play through things. We're certainly not going to risk further injury with him. We're confident he's ready to go."
It's certainly not an easy proposition. At some point, there is the possibility of diminishing returns with too much time off. Even for Rose. He needs to stay sharp as much as he wants to stay sharp. Thibodeau allowed after the game that his star's timing was clearly off. But the truth is, Rose could have sat this one out and the Bulls would have been fine.
As for Rose, he insisted Deng's injury had nothing to do with why he played. The difference Monday?
"I knew I could walk to the bathroom without limping," he said. "That was a good sign."
Of course, the great part for the Bulls is that they truly lack any serious liabilities (short of perhaps their newest addition, Mike James), which has carried them to the best record in the league at 16-3. Brian Scalabrine, normally one of the last guys off the bench, entered the game in the first quarter for the second game in a row, and played nearly 23 minutes -- the minutes leader off the bench on Monday -- making a positive contribution.
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"We have a good foundation, good principles, a good culture," Scalabrine said. "So with those type of things, you're going to find a way to win games during the regular season."
Look at the Bulls' plus/minus differential in Monday night's box score (which, like hockey, denotes a team's net points while a player is on the court) and every player ended up on the plus side. They had a season-high 33 assists. Rip Hamilton, just three games back from a 10-game absence with a pulled groin, was in fine form with 22 points, 10 assists.
Thibodeau ticked off Deng's virtues: "You start with his leadership and toughness. He's our best defender, guards multiple positions. He plays to win. He does whatever you ask him to do, sets a great example in practice every day, so you can't really say enough about him and he's having an All-Star type year."
Then Thibodeau followed by rattling off the rest of the team's, too: "We have more than enough to win."
And he's right.
They may just need to be reminded of it every now and then.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.