DEERFIELD – After a season-ending injury to Derrick Rose, most NBA observers quickly downgraded the Bulls from championship contender to maybe-next-year status.
Pass that message to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, and he’ll throw it right back.
“It’s meaningless,” Thibodeau said.
He paused about two dribbles before he continued.
“To me, the most important thing is what we think,” Thibodeau said Monday after leading a practice at the Berto Center. “Whether somebody on the outside is saying praise or criticism, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what we think.
“We know our team better than anybody else.”
Here’s what Thibodeau and his players know as they prepare to host the Philadelphia 76ers today in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
• They have a 1-0 series lead and want to double that margin before going on the road.
• They have a new starting point guard named C.J. Watson.
• They have more than enough to win with despite the loss of Rose to a torn left ACL.
OK, that last point is up for debate.
But Thibodeau has repeated the mantra – “We have more than enough to win with” – again and again and again during an injury-marred season, and his players have listened.
“We believe it,” said Bulls guard Kyle Korver, one of a handful of reserve players to step up after injuries to starters. “You hear something enough, and it kind of sticks with you.”
An impressive record without Rose bolsters that belief. The Bulls went 18-9 without Rose en route to 50 wins during the regular season to claim the NBA’s overall No. 1 seed.
Although players were downtrodden after Rose’s injury Saturday – many spoke softly in front of their lockers despite a 12-point win – any remnants of self-pity had vanished by the time they returned to the team’s practice facility the next day. Rose visited his teammates Monday but was gone by the time media members were granted access.
With or without Rose, Bulls center Joakim Noah said, the team’s focus remained the same.
“We feel for him,” Noah said, “but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
If the Bulls do feel sorry for themselves, today’s game will expose them.
The 76ers lack star power, but they have a deep bench and favor a run-and-gun style that capitalizes on turnovers for fast-break points. The Bulls limited the 76ers to 39.8 percent shooting in Game 1, but a lack of focus could lead to easy layups for Philadelphia.
Korver said he was confident the Bulls would be both physically and mentally strong.
Besides, Korver said, every good story includes some adversity. Rose’s injury marked the latest chapter in the Bulls’ season-long drama, but the ending had yet to be written.
“I don’t know one good sports movie where the [No. 1] seed just got to cruise to the championship,” Korver said with a smile. “We’ve got a good story here.”
Now that the Bulls’ lead actor is out, the supporting cast will have to take charge.
The Bulls showed how they can beat the 76ers in Game 1 by scoring more points in the paint (38-34), scoring more second-chance points (20-9), grabbing more rebounds (47-38) and having more assists (28-18). Rose led the team with 23 points, but four others scored in double digits, including veterans Richard Hamilton (19 points) and Luol Deng (17 points).
Thibodeau said the Bulls could win Game 2 by winning similar in-game battles.
“Teams that have been down players still have found ways to advance and move forward,” Thibodeau said. “That’s our challenge. You’ve got to play hard, you’ve got to play smart, you’ve got to play together. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
Thibodeau said his players were up to the task.
“I’ve watched them respond to every challenge all year long,” Thibodeau said. “This is the next one.”
It’s a tough one.
“It’s tough,” Noah said. “But no one said it’s going to be easy.”