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Thursday, April 26, 2012
Bulls looking primed for playoff push

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- So the regular season's over, finally, mercifully, and the Chicago Bulls are the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the second straight season.

You're probably wondering: What does it all mean? You're deep, I assume. The brooding type who worries about your basketball team.

Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau's team has been tested by numerous injuries, but it still earned the league's top seed.

After a heart-wrenching, though not unexpected, loss in last year's Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat, we've all become amateur philosophers this season, searching for meaning in a cruel, cruel Association. There was no getting high off a win over the Boston Celtics. Every win over the Heat seemed nihilistic.

Now that I've said that, put away your dog-eared Nietzsche, going into the playoffs, the Bulls are in a good place, physically, spiritually and Thibodeauly. This is a good team. All 50 wins didn't come against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This wasn't the best regular season in NBA history, but the Bulls put in one of the more honest efforts.

The Bulls open with the Philadelphia 76ers, who seemingly would've given up the Liberty Bell to ensure an eighth-place finish, at noon CST Saturday.

Yes, there are questions, mostly just Derrick Rose's game of Operation litany of injuries. But crazy as it sounds, the Bulls are in a better spot than last year. They're more experienced, they have a better shooting guard and they remember how they went out last year. As long as Rose can play, whether it's passing or scoring, this team has a legit shot.

And I'm not just saying that because I dream of going to Oklahoma City or San Antonio in late June. (I would like to go to Los Angeles though.)

Thursday's game was seemingly meaningless -- OK it was miserable. But while Rose missed his 27th game, his teammates failed to get the memo that good teams were supposed to tank their finale. Without Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver, the Bulls beat a lousy Cavaliers team 107-75 as six players scored in double figures, led by garbage-time gunner John Lucas III's 25. In a game that meant nothing, Chicago had 60 rebounds and shot 52.9 percent.

As Tom Thibodeau is wont to say, the Bulls had more than enough to win with. It's a cliche because it's true. Thibodeau never made an excuse all season, and his attitude permeated throughout his locker room.

"We're a brainwashed bunch," Korver said earlier this month.

They're also very consistent. While he gets the majority of negative attention on this team, it's time to commend Carlos Boozer, who played all 66 games, the only Bulls starter to do so. It was the first time Boozer played every game in the regular season, which he said he took pride in. Boozer's jumper is falling, and he's healthier than he was last postseason.

He said the Bulls' balance is better this year. They've learned to live without Rose and found themselves capable. Last season, Rose was the MVP. This season, he was just the Bulls' best player. There's a difference.

"Yeah, we're more spread out," Boozer said. "He's obviously our closer and our MVP, but we're so deep, four or five other guys can get 20 points any given night. Guys on the bench can get 20 on any given night. We've been able to jell with him, surround him with talent, but when the game is on the line, you know where's it's going and he comes through time in and time out. He's not 100 percent, but he's going to play with everything he has. It's a lot better than what other guys got. Trust me, we'll take that."

It would've been nice to see Rose have a throwback game Thursday night, but alas his Iron Man streak ended at two.

Rose warmed up before the game, strafing the net with casual jumpers. Ron Adams had at least 25 assists. But that was it. That left Brian Scalabrine and a trigger-happy Lucas to soak up all the applause.

Thibodeau might not admit there's a Game 2 of the playoff series against Philadelphia, but he's free to acknowledge the Sixers are the next game on the schedule.

Philadelphia, once considered a feel-good story of the season, soured down the stretch and did an epic tank job in their season finale against Detroit. Chicago native Evan Turner made himself a Dwyane Wade-like civic enemy when he told a reporter he wanted to play Chicago over Miami. Turner sort of backtracked in an interview with ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers, but he's not wrong and his opinion was obviously supported by his team.

The subplot is that Turner and Rose were high school rivals, which Turner has a chip on his shoulder about. (If you read Mark Titus' book "Don't Put Me In, Coach," you'll learn Turner supposedly has a chip on his shoulder about everything.) Rose was a little salty when he heard Turner's quote as well.

Get used to hearing about that storyline, because I promise you we'll repeat it, even though Turner scored 9.4 points in 27 minutes per game off the bench.

Derrick Rose
The Bulls will need Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton to find their playoff form quickly.

It's a little unnerving that Rose hasn't played more than two in a row since suffering a foot injury March 12, and he hasplayed in only five of 10 games since returning from that injury.

While Rose scored only 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting in the Bulls' win over Indiana on Wednesday night, he seemed to have a little more of his usual spark. But he can't play with abandon and fans can't watch him with abandon.

Of course, Rose played every regular-season game a year ago and by the time he played Miami in the conference finals, he couldn't carry the Bulls any further. Maybe it was just LeBron James in his face, or maybe Rose was out of gas.

Questions about Miami can wait, for at least another couple weeks, because the Bulls must first get through Philadelphia, and Boston likely waits. The Celtics will provide some real drama. That's why Thibodeau didn't appreciate me asking if the players "learned anything" by struggling with Indiana in the first round last year.

"I don't see it the way you guys do," he said, visibly annoyed. "You guys see it entirely different. The playoffs are the playoffs. Every team is good. That's playoff basketball. That's the way it's going to be. It doesn't matter if you're the first seed, eighth seed, it's going to be tough. It's going to be physical. All the games are hard-fought. You rarely see blowouts in the playoffs. That's not the way it is."

After the game, Thibodeau shrugged off any concerns about the schedule, which has fewer days off.

"Just be ready," he said.

After everything the Bulls have gone through since last season's playoffs, how could they not be?