- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- A slim specter of hope turned sharply to the worst thought imaginable for Bulls fans late Saturday afternoon -- how do they survive without Derrick Rose?
An MRI revealed a torn ACL in the left knee of the reigning MVP, sustained with 1:22 left in the Bulls' 103-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
The injury occurred on an awkward twist during a routine drive that hasn't been routine in a while, and in the worst-case scenario, may never be routine again.
Up until then, it was ho-hum as playoff games go. The Bulls were on their way to a relatively easy victory. The storyline was Rip Hamilton's performance in support of a much-improved but still-not-quite 100 percent Rose, a great sign for a team looking for that one more piece.
Up until then, even the Sixers making a mini-run to cut a 20-point Bulls lead to 12 in the previous two minutes, hardly felt like a time for panic. And while there may have been a few questions afterward, Rose's presence on the court with a minute and a half remaining did not necessarily signal a call for debate, much less coach Tom Thibodeau's head.
Up until then, there was every reason to believe Rose was well on his way back; the Bulls' starting lineup was finding its rhythm; a long run in the NBA playoffs was a reasonable thought.
Up until Rose went up with a grimace and came down clutching his left knee, the United Center was a hopeful, happy place.
Afterward, not even the Bulls' victory could cut through the quiet of a stunned Chicago locker room as players shook their heads and whispered to each other, unable to mask their fear over what would turn out to be Rose's sixth and most damaging injury -- both to him and to his team -- this season.
"My heart," said Hamilton, "kind of dropped ... It was scary, not for just us. but the whole city of Chicago."
Taking this in the context in which it belongs, the sight of Rose lying prone on the court was indeed frightening. And immediately, it brought into razor-sharp focus the X factor of the Bulls' chances this postseason: Rose's delicate health.
The Bulls can beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals if Rose stays healthy, the pundits prognosticated. The tremendous contribution this season of the Bulls' bench, the improvement of Carlos Boozer and addition of a healthy Hamilton can carry this team all the way only if Rose is OK.
As expected, Thibodeau was stoic in the face of this latest adversity, even before a diagnosis was made.
"It's a part of the game," he said. "There's going to be injuries. A guy can get hurt in practice, he can get hurt in the first five minutes of a game, he can get hurt at the end of a game. He can get hurt at any time and you've got to deal with it. That's part of this game. He's had a lot of injuries this year. It's been unfortunate. But we do have more than enough to win with it. So whatever the circumstances are, we'll deal with it."
Immediately, the questions began over whether Rose, who played a little more than 37 minutes, should have been on the court at that late stage given his relatively fragile condition. But Thibodeau was resolute.
"I don't work backwards like you guys do," the coach said through pursed lips. "The score was going the other way."
While it is entirely fair to question Thibodeau and to engage in the debate, particularly given the fact that this was the league MVP who had five previous injuries, this was not February and these were not the New Jersey Nets. Rose was en route to a game-high 23 points, 9 assists and 9 rebounds. He was driving effectively though less frequently, shooting the 3 at a 50 percent clip, looking better than he has in any game since returning from his last (ankle/foot) injury a week and a half ago.
But he was also shooting 9-for-23, had five turnovers and needed the work. This is presumably what he was being saved for.
"He's got to play, and the thing is, we sat him 'til [the 7:53] mark of the fourth and he's got to work on closing, he's got to work on finishing," Thibodeau said. "Our team, we didn't handle that part great. That was what I was thinking."
For whatever it's worth, Rose's teammates were incredulous over the question.
"I don't know why you would question it," said Luol Deng, who did an exceptional job in helping hold Andre Iguodala to 11 points and six rebounds while scoring 17 points. "It's a playoff game. You're trying to play. You're trying to finish the game. Even though you're up, you're going to see them three more times. He's playing well and we want him to get his rhythm. I don't know why you'd question that."
Hamilton, who had praised the Bulls' depth in allowing him to play just 26:30 and sit out the fourth quarter, agreed.
"Philly was making a run, and in playoff basketball, you never want to give a team confidence," he said. "So if it's having your starters in when you've got a team down, you've got to try to keep them down. You can't let them back in the game or make a little run, so we needed guys out there who could put the ball in the basket."
Now, of course, the focus shifts dramatically. How will the Bulls not just put the ball in the basket, but win consistently enough to be a threat in the postseason without Rose?
Though they were 18-9 during the regular season without him, including victories over playoff teams Miami, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia, those were obviously not best-of-seven series. And the Bulls were not looking to survive a round but to take the next step, presumably beating the Heat and playing for the NBA title.
The Bulls' bench has been tested and could be worn by the effort this season. On Saturday, it uncharacteristically shot poorly as a group (8-of-18) and C.J. Watson, Rose's replacement for the remainder of the playoffs, went 1-of-4 and finished with four points and five assists.
While Watson averaged 9.7 points, 4.1 assists, 2.1 rebounds and nearly a steal per game in 49 games this season, including a career-high 25 starts, it will take a Herculean effort from him and his fellow bench-mob mates on a consistent basis under the most trying of circumstances.
As heroic as they have been, expecting them not just to return to the conference finals but to go further without their leader and franchise player is unrealistic.
The attention shifts back to Deng, operating with a non-shooting wrist injury that will require surgery at some point.
Before the news of Rose's injury broke, the winning locker room stayed quiet as the hushed questions continued. It was too fresh to mask the disappointment, too real to come up with all the reasons their playoff hopes are not dead. But there was a glimmer, and in that moment anyway, it was as good as it was going to get.
"Come on man, he's the MVP of the NBA, so it's tough," said Joakim Noah. "But you know what, there's basketball to be played."
The Bulls' goal of making the NBA Finals was shredded by Rose's injury.