Posted Mar 15 2012 11:25AM
CHICAGO -- The Ballad of John Lucas III, a.k.a., "Luc Shortley," was a happy one for Chicago Bulls fans Wednesday night against the Miami Heat at United Center. Lucas scored 24 points off Chicago's bench in 27 minutes of replacement work for injured Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson, and the Bulls managed to run their record without Rose this season to 8-3 with an improbable 106-102 victory over their Eastern Conference nemeses.
Sooner or later, though, Chicago's inability to bring a healthy eight- or nine-man rotation to tipoff is going to prove costly. And later is going to feel way worse.
Like a lot of teams so far in this compressed, unyielding season, the Bulls have been forced into playing a trainers' room version of Name That Tune ("We can win this game with only four of our starters. ... Wait, no, three!"). They have played it better than anyone, cruising to the NBA's best record (36-9) and amassing all sorts of solid situational splits in the process: 8-3 without Rose, 7-2 without Luol Deng, 22-6 without Richard Hamilton.
In time, though, all those "withouts" are going to bite, and a concerned John Paxson dreads that they might leave the Bulls 1-4 or 3-4 at a time when you don't get a chance to lose five times.
Paxson, the Bulls' vice president of basketball operations, acknowledged that he and the organization are growing increasingly nervous about the team's inability to get and stay healthy. Winning on nights when you're hobbled and shorthanded is nice at some double-dawg-dare-ya level. But when there is an NBA title to be had, the only split that's going to matter is Chicago's record on May or June days that end in "y." More healthy players will be better than some, and all is what wins championships most of the time.
Chicago remains a long way from all.
"It's what our team has done all year," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Guys on our team are the right guys. They have the right attitude and the right approach, and there is a belief that we can win when we've had guys out because the next guy steps up and does the job."
There is a cumulative cost to that, though, because missing starters means a thinner bench and a thinner bench -- for a team whose depth is one of its two or three critical advantages -- means a slimmer edge on the competition. Chicago's reserves were a tightly honed unit last season, almost a second starting five, and benefited from that familiarity and identity. Now the rotation has gone Ponzi, or Madoffian, stealing from here to pay over there, and the bench is less a unit than a temp work force.
Some of the injuries are more discomforting than others. Hamilton's unavailability is the big worry -- he has missed time with three separate ailments, up and down his body (left groin, right thigh and right shoulder) -- and will be out a while longer, limiting Chicago's ability to learn just how much offensive help he will provide to Rose. The Bulls dug deep (two years, $10 milllion) for a 34-year-old with a swell resume but a shaky recent history of participation and dedication. If Hamilton can't pull and hold it together soon, the Bulls will be worse off; they don't have Keith Bogans' reliability and toughness anymore either.
Deng's left wrist is another omnipresent concern. He's playing through a torn ligament because the surgical alternative would end not only this NBA season for him but the 2012 London Olympics, where he's eager to serve as ambassador and leader of the British team. But he's not Kobe Bryant, his ligament is different from Bryant's and Deng winds up aggravating the wrist almost nightly. He missed seven games right after it happened in late January, then another two immediately before Wednesday.
Then there's Rose, remarkably durable through his first three seasons (he played in 240 of a possible 246 games) but sidelined now by his third injury as well. A sprained toe cost him five games, back spasms shut him down for five more and now it's a groin, which is like Affirmed with a hoof or Lincecum with an elbow.
"With the way the schedule is, it's tough," Deng said after the late victory Wednesday that meant, really, nothing in terms of what might happen if these teams meet in the postseason. "You don't want to get hurt, but the way the schedule is this year, one injury can easily lead to another injury. You spend your time focusing on one injury and you kind of lose your rhythm on other stuff, and something else happens. There are just so many games one after another."
Thibodeau and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra agreed Wednesday that the biggest difference in Miami from a year ago is its growing familiarity, the result of players being on the court together through whatever comes their way. The Heat have lost a total of 45 man-games to injuries this season, which is misleading given Eddy Curry's and Mike Miller's annual contributions to the total. James (1), Bosh (3) and Wade (9) have missed a combined 13 games, and Spoelstra's preferred starting five has been available to him 29 times (22-7).
The Bulls have lost 71 man-games, or 58 percent more than Miami. That includes Hamilton's 28, backup point guard C.J. Watson's 17, Deng's 9 Taj Gibson's 3, Joakim Noah's 2 and of course Rose's 11. Thibodeau's "A" lineup -- Rose, Hamilton, Deng, Boozer and Noah -- has logged just 10 games. It's 9-1 but that's not nearly a large enough sample size for any of them to know precisely what they have or don't have.
It's nobody's fault, of course; Paxson said he has been assured by the Bulls' medical personnel that these are isolated, fluke injuries rather than a pattern of bad preparation or, in Hamilton's case, general brittleness. Still, the VP said he would like "15 or 20 games" at the end to set the rotation and develop all the things -- tangibles, intangibles -- that come when the principals aren't wearing "Hello, my name is..." stickers in postseason crises.
The Bulls play game Nos. 46 and 47 this weekend against Portland and Philadelphia. They'll have 19 left after that. And a whole lot of healing to do.
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