CHICAGO -- After winning their 27th game of the season, most of the Chicago Bulls headed out to celebrate Joakim Noah's 27th birthday downtown, before scattering to Orlando, Fla., Miami, Turks and Caicos and wherever else one goes for the short All-Star break.
The mood in the post-Bucks-beating locker room was happy but guarded, a nod to the seriousness of this team, which stems in part from the example set by the very serious Tom Thibodeau and the very serious Derrick Rose.
Luol Deng joked a little with reporters but was hardly expansive as he headed south for his first All-Star Game. Noah was happy about his first career triple-double -- "finger guns" don't lie -- but he was underwhelmed about its importance in the grand scheme of things.
Rose tried to escape the media horde for the second straight night before getting trapped by radio man Chuck Swirsky and his camera crew.
Swirsk with the assist! Onions!
Before the game, Rose told reporters that he ducked out early Monday night because he was sick of the questions about his back. True to form, he apologized, and I understand his newfound reticence over talking.
Until there are answers, our questions often lack meaning or urgency, especially to the athletes who have heard it all before.
The Bulls (27-8) are in the second year of a franchise renaissance, and expectations are high for everyone. The fans, and by proxy, the media are counting games until the conference final games, not to mention counting Carlos Boozer's missed dunks, Rip Hamilton's missed games and the accumulation of Rose and Deng's minutes.
The Bulls are trying to stay even-keeled as they battle injuries and a host of subpar teams while trying to meet Thibodeau's consistent demands and their own outsize expectations.
The one thing we have in common with the Bulls is the knowledge that nothing short of an NBA Finals appearance would be an acceptable end to this season -- the team's fragile health notwithstanding. It's a shame, because this is a very good team despite how it finishes, but it's the truth and there is no escaping it.
Last season, until the very end, was a regularly scheduled celebration that Chicago basketball fans hadn't experienced in more than a decade. Wins over Miami, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers were treated as important events.
Now, most games are ultimately rendered meaningless, because we know the Bulls are good enough to beat most of their competition with relative ease, even with injured players. We learned quickly that the Bulls were on par or better than they were last year, especially compared to their peers and especially when the team is (mostly) healthy. It's not as if no one cares about the team. In fact, it's the opposite. Ratings are through the roof, and the Bulls are the hottest thing in Chicago. (The bunting contest in Cubs camp seems to have mesmerized the press corps there.)
With most of the rotation intact from last season, the consistently successful first half of the season was neither a cause for celebration or a reason for true concern. Yes, the Bulls have persevered through regular injuries, but we all share the feeling that none of it really matters until they match up against the Miami Heat.
One thing I've learned is that players, guys like Deng playing through pain, don't like when reporters intimate that their blood and sweat are all but expected and not particularly worthwhile, even as the players play down the big games from the regular games. And Deng, like Rose, is sick of talking about his injury. But with the Bulls so solid, there doesn't seem to be much else to focus on.
Wednesday's easy win, for instance, was pretty enjoyable, but with the Bulls up big in the fourth quarter, some wondered why Deng was still playing. He finished with 35 minutes, three under his average.
The injuries have sucked out a lot of fun to an impressive start. Rose's toe, Rose's back, Deng's wrist, Hamilton's thigh, Hamilton's groin, C.J. Watson's concussion, Boozer's ... no, actually, Boozer is good. His hair was kind of funky for a minute, and he still dunks like a high schooler, but he's played pretty well and is shooting at an impressive clip.
Maybe I'm making too much of it, but last season watching Rose was a revelation. This season, the crossovers, the J's, the Mach 5 to the rack, we've seen it done before.
Rose took our breath away last season. Now, you hold your breath watching him. But there's nothing wrong with changes. After all, Rose went from self-proclaimed MVP candidate to runaway MVP last season.
The second half begins next week with a home game against New Orleans, and then the Bulls kick off a 12-game stretch in which they play nine teams with winning records and the Knicks, who were .500 going into Thursday's game with Miami, in 20 days.
The good news is with the spate of good teams and ample time to rest, we can forget about the debate of resting players, or at least tone it down, and just enjoy the competition.
These are games the Bulls need to win. The road to Miami is long and the journey continues.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.