Posted Apr 29 2012 8:03PM
CHICAGO -- What the Chicago Bulls will try to do now, without Derrick Rose for however long their postseason run lasts, they already have done. Mathematically, anyway.
One game down, a maximum of 27 more to go if their first-round series with Philadelphia and each subsequent round goes the distance. The Bulls played precisely that many games without Rose during the regular season due to five different injuries, and they face potentially the same number without him thanks to the sixth and most serious of his physical setbacks -- a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee that will require surgery in the next two to four weeks and sideline the NBA's 2011 Most Valuable Player from six to nine months.
Somewhat improbably, the Bulls went 18-9 in the regular season without their best player and clinched homecourt advantage through the playoffs in spite of his chronic absences. Hypothetically now, with their Game 1 victory over Philadelphia in their Eastern Conference first round series tucked away, they could go 15-12 the rest of the way (winning each series 4-3) and go home in late June with hardware rather than heartache.
It's unlikely. Hardly anyone outside the team's tight circle expects or believes that could happen. But as they faced their first day and practice without their All-Star starting point guard -- without the embodiment of their swagger -- the Bulls weren't ready to forfeit or fold just yet.
"It's not a death sentence for him," coach Tom Thibodeau said at the Berto Center practice facility in Chicago's northwest suburbs. "It's not a death sentence for our team."
Said center Joakim Noah: "We're not going to let anybody paint the picture for us. Obviously it's tough losing Derrick. You feel for him. But we can't feel sorry for ourselves.
"Just because Derrick's not on the court doesn't mean there's not a game to be played on Tuesday. We're going to fight as hard as we can to make the city proud. Our margin for error is a lot smaller with Derrick out. Can you replace a guy like Derrick? No. But it's on us to step up as much as possible."
Rose crashed to the court with a mere 80 seconds left in Game 1, the ACL ligament that stablizes his left knee popping upon takeoff on a two-footed leap in the lane. Chicago's chances of legitimately chasing a seventh NBA title in franchise history crashed with him, too, in the eyes of experts nationally, fans locally and a whole lot of people both inside and outside the home dressing room at United Center Saturday.
Their story -- from arguably co-favorites with Miami to emerge from the East, to sudden underdogs and Team Pity -- began to be written for them almost instantly. That picture Noah spoke of, yes, the paints were out, the palette all blues and grays and glum.
It's what people in and around sports do. Predicting outcomes, backed by wagers or not, is as much a part of things as watching and being entertained. Or, if the Bulls have anything to say about it, being surprised.
"The big challenge is to make sure that we're ready," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "To understand what we're trying to get done out there. Play to your strengths. Cover up your weaknesses. Know your opponent. How you get ready -- that should never change. Our style of play shouldn't change. We're not going to change our defense, our rebounding. Low turnovers, inside-out, share the ball, that's got to remain the same."
The longest the Bulls went without Rose through his multiple ailments -- sprained toe, back spasms, groin strain, sprained ankle, sore foot -- was 12 games; now they'll either go longer than that or they'll go home, sooner than they expected. They never played more than two games in a row without him vs. eventual playoff teams; now, duh, they're facing nothing but playoff teams.
They never squared off against the same roster, same coaching staff in consecutive games without Rose except for a home-and-home with Toronto in late March; now Philadelphia's deep squad and coach Doug Collins' staff will get to study and dissect every stop-gap move Chicago makes in Rose's absence. Then, if the Bulls overcome that, Boston's Doc Rivers or Atlanta's Larry Drew will do the same in Round 2.
After that? C'mon, it seems like too much to even conjure. To almost everyone except the fellows Rose had to leave behind.
"Everyone has to do their job," Thibodeau said. "Everyone has to know their job. The challenge for everyone right now is to do a little more. That's all we have to do. That's what we did when he's been out previously."
Four Bulls players besides Rose (21.8 ppg) averaged in double figures, and backup C.J. Watson boosted his scoring from 9.7 to 11.4 in the career-high 25 games he started in Rose's spot. Defensively, the best Bulls' unit was the one with All-Star forward Luol Deng and four reserves (Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and third-string point guard John Lucas III). That crew still is available, intact, to Thibodeau.
Getting by without a fallen star is nothing new to the Bulls' head coach, either. He has been an assistant on teams that soldiered on through injuries to players such as Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson in New York, Yao Ming in Houston, Kevin Garnett in Boston and, last season with the Bulls, Noah and Carlos Boozer. That surely laid the foundation for his no-excuses and "we have enough to win" outlook.
"You're not going to replace the greatness of Derrick," Thibodeau said. "We have to do that collectively, as a team. Now we've had almost 30 games without him, so we understand that part of it. We feel awful for him but it's not going to change our goals."
Eleven players were back this season from the Bulls team that got snuffed by Miami from the Eastern Conference finals last spring, and 10 of them are healthy and available for duty. It wouldn't be right for them to shut themselves down, count themselves out, before someone manages to beat them four times in a stretch of seven games. They wanted to win with and even for Rose -- first, though, they wanted to win.
"I've been dreaming about these playoffs for a whole year now," Noah said. "As a player, this is, really, a game that you want to be in. So yeah, it's a tough break. But we're not going to start backing down now. There's no way. We're just going to keep fighting and see where it takes us."
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