- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Before the scoreboard went nuclear and eardrum-tearing music bombarded the United Center, in the back corner of the quiet home locker room, Nate Robinson heard a familiar beat coming from Carlos Boozer's headphones.
"That," Robinson said, "is an anthem."
Robinson and Boozer, and just maybe this columnist, bobbed their heads to the beginning bars of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy."
"It was all a dream ..."
It was a dream, wasn't it?
Derrick Rose, the made-for-Hollywood hometown kid; the deep bench; the selfless starters; the mad-genius coach. "Juicy" is a rap classic about the simple joys of youth and how great it is to make it in America.
It could be Rose's anthem. Or that of the post-Jordan Bulls.
We knew the previous two years were a dream as they unfolded, but that's the past now, and this is the present, in which we pretend to get excited about a win over the Sacramento Kings.
The LimboBulls began their fight with a 93-87 win Wednesday over the Kings, the kind of grind-it-out affair you'll see a lot this season. If the Bulls stay healthy and Rose plays the last 20 or so games, they will challenge for the Central Division and have a shot at 50 wins. But it's not going to come easy.
"I think most games are going to be like this," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And they are normally anyway. You have to be able to grind them out, find different ways to win, play tough."
OK, you've heard this all before. Thibodeau then went on to talk about the 2012 Kings like they were the 2002 Kings.
You've seen Thibodeau on the sidelines when the Bulls are great. If he has any hair left by February, I'll be shocked. If he's locked up in a rubber room muttering, "Don't shoot that, Nate," well, I won't lose any bets.
Hey, Thibodeau got his money before the season. Now he has to earn it. He is one of the most respected coaches in the league, but you can't tell me his peers weren't like, "Yeah, I could win, too, with Derrick Rose." Now, how will he do with Kirk Hinrich and Robinson?
I'm betting he'll still be pretty good. Even without Omer Asik, the Bulls have a solid frontcourt and will win close games all season thanks to the extra edge they get from the most prepared coach in the league.
Of course, it helps when Joakim Noah has 23 points, 10 rebounds, five steals, three blocks and three assists in 40 minutes like he did Wednesday.
"Yeah, I'll take it," Thibodeau said.
"It was Halloween, and he had a monster night," Boozer said. "A monster night. ... He was playing like Joakim Noah."
The Bulls will need nights like that from Noah and more 18-point games from Boozer and a few more 19-point games from Rip Hamilton. Those were the only three Bulls in double figures, as the team shot 41.8 percent from the field but converted 25 of 33 free throws.
The Bulls led by as many as 14 in the second half, but the Kings kept it close late. A better team could have put the Bulls away. Better teams will this season.
The real highlight of the night came in the postgame locker room, where Taj Gibson broke news the old-fashioned way, telling reporters he had inked an 11th-hour contract extension for four years and $38 million. The energetic forward said he knew he could get more on the open market but that he wanted to stay with Chicago and credited his agent Mark Bartelstein for giving him "fatherly" advice. Gibson added that the Bulls compromised on "the final outcome" of the contract.
"I just wanted to get what's fair," Gibson said. "I looked at the numbers, and that's a lot of money. I can't really turn down that much money. Especially for the security. You never know what can happen throughout the year."
The Bulls' locker room hooted and hollered when Gibson talked to reporters, with cries of steak dinners on his tab. Gibsons on Gibson?
"That's my young boy," Noah said. "He's my rookie. When you're somebody's rookie, he's my rookie in this life, in the next life, in the next life after that and the afterlife. I'm very happy."
Leave it to Noah to bring reincarnation into a contract discussion. But Noah needs Gibson to back him up. The two are the best post defenders on the team.
"I see Taj's grind every day," Noah continued. "I know how much he fights every night to represent for the Bulls. That's just the icing on the cake."
Good vibes abounded afterward, but it was still an ugly game, the first of many.
The Bulls are marketing this season as "Chicago Basketball," a smart ploy to engender civic goodwill in what amounts to a limbo season after two straight seasons of having the best record in the NBA.
The starters are missing Rose's athleticism, but it's still a group that can rebound, (mostly) shoot and (mostly) defend. They're not winning any dunk contests or causing anyone to buy NBA League Pass, but they'll get the job done night after night in a league that rewards consistency. I worry about their health.
While Noah had his "monster game," Luol Deng had an off night shooting (3-for-13 for seven points) but grabbed 12 rebounds.
With games such as that, reality might not be so harsh when you consider the bottom line of wins and losses. Just before he was promoted from fan ambassador to senior adviser for chief operating officer/president Michael Reinsdorf, Scottie Pippen predicted 40 wins for the Bulls. As a former fan ambassador, he needs work.
I'm thinking wins in the high 40s, a good chance to win another division title and, just maybe, an All-Star season for Noah. This isn't San Antonio without David Robinson, circa 1996-97. This isn't the 2012 Cubs. As mad as fans could be for the way the Bulls dumped their surefire bench players for a hodgepodge of cheap replacements, this is a team that will put in an honest effort to win.
The Bulls are a proud bunch and respectful of Rose's importance, but they're also tired of hearing about how unimportant they are in the grand scheme of things. I get a lot of comments like, "I'll pay attention to the team when Rose gets back," but this group deserves some love. Just a little. However, there is a ceiling here.
Before the opener, around the time when even the worst teams try to fire up the base, announcer Tommy Edwards intoned, "The fight for a championship begins tonight!"
Sure, for San Antonio, for Miami, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers, that fight has started. But we're in Chicago, aren't we? Championship? Does the Central Division award a trophy? The Golden Toolbooth?
Of course, it was just basic home team jingoism, nothing important or noteworthy. But, even worse, that announcement came after going through all the accomplishments of last season -- a stark reminder of the joys of the past and the cruel realities of the present.
The one guy who could lead this team to the championship, Rose, was on the 2011-12 highlight video, but he wasn't introduced in the opener. He wasn't on the bench. He wasn't in his luxury suite with his family. Rose was absent in every way, and it was probably a good thing. Until he returns, his appearance can only serve as a cruel reminder of a dream deferred.
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