The Bulls open the unofficial—and unmathematical—second half probably in as good overall physical state as they have been all season with no significant injuries and everyone available.
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Eight questions for the Bulls stretch run

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By Sam Smith | 2.20.2015 | 7:12 a.m. CT

And here they come...!

The All-Star game is over, the one-week break is done, Cabo San Lucas hotels’ extra long beds are available again, the trading deadline is past. It’s the stretch run in the NBA, the approximately 30 game race to seeding and the playoffs. It began Thursday with the TNT doubleheader, and the rest of the NBA gets to the center jump Friday with the Bulls in Auburn Hills to play the Pistons.

The Bulls open the unofficial—and unmathematical—second half probably in as good overall physical state as they have been all season with no significant injuries and everyone available.

They figure to have their starting lineup in tact for just the 17th time all season, 13-3 thus far with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. The Bulls are 34-20, third in the Eastern Conference behind Atlanta and Toronto and leading the Central Division. Their current first round playoff opponent would be Milwaukee. They’ve won four straight, though they shouldn’t be fooled as one was after Anthony Davis was hurt and another when Orlando coughed up a game that seemed impossible to lose in the last 30 seconds. But the Bulls, primarily Rose and Noah, seem as healthy as they’ve been all season with Rose playing at his highest level, averaging a team high 21.5 per game the last 10 games. Gasol and Butler are coming off playing in the All-Star game, and Tony Snell is coming off a week of his best play as a pro.

The Bulls have, at least according to win/loss, one of the easiest schedules to close the season, ranking in the top five least taxing against top opponents. And even with a first 54 games of some confusion and indecision and rumors of even a coaching change and a decline in play, the Bulls are 10th in overall point differential, third in the East. That’s a reliable indicator of team strength.

The Bulls, also according to NBA statistics, are eighth in field goal defense, sixth in three-point defense and third in rebounding, all numbers which suggest title contending and not the much concerning defensive slippage. The Bulls, however, don’t do as well in advanced statistics at 17th in pace—we know they often play too slowly—13th in points per 100 possessions on defense, and 14th in true shooting percentage to account for all shooting.

It suggests an overall mixture of a team with numerous injuries in its first 54 games that with 28 to go can have a strong finish. But there still are questions the Bulls face in these last two months. Here’s a look at the major ones:

Will they change the starting lineup?

Of course not. Coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t do such things as he won’t get into a media discussion on so called demotions. But changes have been made subtly. Joakim Noah is a center. Noah’s sacrificed a lot accepting a power forward role when he was the league’s best center last season. So coming off surgery and working his way back he accepted a role to accommodate Gasol, and more than anyone Noah is about team. But it’s time he played his best position and the best position for the team. Thibodeau has quietly been going that way with Noah after starting with Gasol playing often with a second group that includes Taj Gibson. Thibodeau will have to make some tough decisions sometimes finishing with them and not Gasol. Noah and Gasol can start, though perhaps an earlier substitution for Noah is in order to have him play longer with a defensive second group, and also with Rose. Noah and Gasol are fine together, but they have to be used better. The Bulls used to do more a double high post set, their so called “horns” look, with two big men at the elbows in what you might also see in the triangle pinch post. Then you can operate off that with two of the best passing big men in the game. The Bulls need to use those sets more.

Will Tony Snell play more?

Perhaps. The latest big Thibodeau test is whether he’ll go back to playing Kirk Hinrich more after Hinrich was out pre-All Star with turf toe and Snell had his best games as a pro and a highlight game defending LeBron James. Snell’s play is what the Bulls have been waiting for, to finally show aggression and being unafraid to shoot, make mistakes and be yanked. He’s done so and it’s apparent with he and Mike Dunleavy playing, the floor is so much more open for Rose. With Rose having that sort of space he can get to the basket easier. But it also enabled him to pass. There was much talk of Rose with a pair of seven-assist games and few turnovers and now looking to pass. But that’s all due to the spacing. He’s always looking to pass. With the defense collapsed the way it had with Dunleavy out and a poor shooting Hinrich playing, Rose had few passing or driving lanes, the lack of which was often blamed on him. Hinrich always figured to be a below 20-minute per game reserve, but stepped in with teammates injured. He isn’t the sort to complain, but he’s thus more likely to break down. It would be a disservice to the team not to at least see if Snell can maintain his improvement.

Will Doug McDermott play?

Probably not, though it’s been a mistake. You can’t play everyone, of course. And he did need knee surgery, which set him back. But when you have a relatively average three-point shooting team (16th in attempts), you need to take a look at one of the best ever three-point shooters in college and a four-year player. I would have started McDermott over Dunleavy this season to enable Dunleavy, who is an excellent shooter, passer and floor spacer, to give balance to a second unit with little ball movement because of Gibson and Aaron Brooks. It’s still not too late to get a look at McDermott. If a guy can make shots he can win a playoff game for you no matter his age or experience.

What’s the role for Nikola Mirotic?

It’s been in decline, but here’s another guy who can make shots and spread the floor. It’s tough giving minutes to four big men. I agree with that. But the way the NBA is now you are going to see stretch fours, and especially from your conference rivals with Kevin Love in Cleveland, Chris Bosh in Miami and basically everyone shooting in Atlanta. The way teams have zoned up the Bulls at times the Bulls have not been able to take advantage with their size. As good as Gasol is, he’s not a classic power post up player. In the latter part of the first half as he’s played a lot of minutes, he’s been pushed off the low block and had to play outside face up more. He’s excellent at that, which negates being moved outside. Gasol has thrived in two-man play with Rose because of Gasol’s ability to shoot. But if you had someone like Mirotic opposite, it could open the lane more and enable him to have more deep post opportunities. One of the reasons for the Bulls’ stagnant play on offense has been spending time watching Gasol trying to get post position, then pushed outside and either trying to repost or getting a quick shot. The Bulls need to move into that post action more quickly and then rotate the ball instead of standing around watching to see if it can happen.

Can Rose and Jimmy Butler coexist?

Of course. There was some notion of rivalry, which I haven’t seen. The Rose/Butler issue is that Butler isn’t the classic shooting guard to space the floor. He eventually will be given you see the work he does in the summer. He’ll need another summer to expand that range, and he’ll get there. But he’s not there yet. So some of those three-guard rotations with Hinrich have not worked because you can’t have the defense back off two guys. Jimmy does so many things with getting to the line and rebounding it’s important he play a lot, though perhaps not as much as he has. Snell could fit in with his shooting and perhaps Brooks as Thibodeau has gone some long stretches with Rose and Brooks. Remember, Thibodeau makes a point of insisting in the stretch run he prefers to cut the rotation. The Bulls are as healthy now as they have been all season. So perhaps this is a good time to stretch out the rotation so the Bulls can come into the playoffs just as healthy.

Can the Bulls be a better three-point team?

Yes. The big element is health, which is good now. The way the game is played in much of the NBA now, players run to the three-point line in transition. The Bulls rarely do that because they don’t shoot threes as well—or often—and too often have post play calls. Rose needs to push the ball even after made baskets and basically ignore a lot of the play calls. These are smart guys who know how to play. You could see that against the Cavs the way Rose kept Snell high on the weak side to occupy LeBron and thus keep him out of the passing and driving lanes for steals. The Bulls in transition are a thing of beauty. And while I believe you take your best shot no matter the shot, some more going to the three-point line on drive and kick should open the court and provide for more flow, ball movement and transition game.

Is Derrick Rose back?

Enough. This narrative of Rose having to be the MVP player he was seems off base and inappropriate. His game is under a microscope like few in the NBA. He’s had a marvelous season the way he should, basically in stages to show, especially to himself, he can be healthy and then taking on a little more and a little more. He’s done that seemingly in quarters and it’s worked well as he prepares for his stretch run and last 20 games. He’s shown, especially lately, he can produce against top opponents and the best point guards. He cannot do it every game and every time because that would put too much stress on his body. It wouldn’t be smart. Similarly, it’s why Rose, appropriately, doesn’t throw himself at the basket constantly or try to dunk much. The team wants him best for the playoffs and he does as well. His arc remains upward, which seems the best way to handle the season.

Does the rest of the regular season matter?

In a big way. If you want to be a champion you can’t worry about avoiding anyone. If you are the best you need to beat the best. But winning the Central Division would be vital for the Bulls. That presumably would keep Cleveland at a distance and likely have the Bulls in the third spot in the Eastern Conference. Getting in the 2-3/6-7 playoff spot avoid the Atlanta Hawks, who surely will get the No. 1 seed. The Bulls dream scenario presumably would be to hold off the Cavs and have them open the playoffs with the Wizards and the winner playing Atlanta. But that probably requires winning the Central Division. The Cavs will be tough to hold off the way they won 14 of 15 before the Bulls beat them to go into the All-Star break.

...Thundering down the stretch!