CHICAGO – Given all the gasps around Chicago after Derrick Rose indicated he might not play this season, the All-Star break appears to be coming at a good time for the Bulls.
They can take a deep breath. They hardly can breathe easy, though. Until their sidelined superstar point guard is back to tying opponents in knots with that wicked crossover, they can forget about that.
For now, the Bulls are doing what they can without him, and all things considered, they’re in a good spot even after dropping four of five.
They’re fifth in the Eastern Conference at 30-22 and 11⁄2 games behind first-place Indiana in the Central Division. While few would expect them to challenge LeBron James and the Miami Heat, a playoff run doesn’t seem out of the question even without Rose.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We have to grind. We have to do it collectively. We have to play with great intensity. We can’t take shortcuts. When we put the work into it, we give ourselves a chance.”
They have a first-time All-Star in Joakim Noah. Luol Deng made it for the second straight year, and Carlos Boozer is having a solid season.
What they don’t have is their centerpiece, their heart and soul, and the latest from Rose was a bit sobering for Bulls fans, to say the least.
In one of the few interviews he’s granted since he tore the ACL in his left knee during last year’s playoff opener against Philadelphia, he told USA Today he would sit out the season rather than come back too soon.
“I don’t have a set date,” he said. “I’m not coming back until I’m 110 percent. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It’s just that I’m not coming back until I’m ready.”
He reiterated it to reporters after Thursday’s game in Boston.
“I really don’t know,” he said when asked if he thinks he’ll play this season. “I’m feeling good, but like I said, if it’s to where it’s taking me a long time and I’m still not feeling right, I don’t mind missing this year.”
He said he would “love” to play this season. “But if I have anything lingering on, there’s no point.”
The Bulls never have revealed a target date for Rose to return. They’ve said all along that they’re going to take a cautious approach with the former MVP.
He has not played this season, but he has been practicing and traveling with the team. He said he hasn’t experienced any setbacks, and he is expected to participate in five-on-five drills after the break, another hurdle as he tries to work his way back from an injury that sent the top-seeded Bulls toward a first-round exit last spring and cast a big cloud over this season.
The Bulls have shown some spark, beating New York three times and winning at Miami, but along with those eye-popping wins there were hard-to-explain losses to Charlotte and New Orleans. Maybe Rose could have bailed them out in those games.
Rose said he still hasn’t taken any hits to the knee in practice, but he’s not worried about that. His biggest concern at the moment involves one of the biggest parts of his game – dunking. He said he can’t dunk “off stride.” Once he can, he’ll know he’s ready.
Rose’s injury isn’t the only one the Bulls have had to cope with. Just about all their top players have been banged up at some point, with Noah battling plantar fasciitis in his right foot and Kirk Hinrich sidelined by an infection in his right elbow.
“We’re short-handed,” forward Taj Gibson said. “We’ve got to come out and play every night like it’s our last night playing.”
All that might explain some of the choppy play.
The Bulls continue to rank among the best defensively, as they have since Thibodeau took over three years ago. They’re holding opponents to 43.3-percent shooting, third-lowest in the league, and rank third with a plus-2.88 rebounding margin.
But they’ve had trouble protecting the ball lately, with a season-high 22 turnovers while falling 71-69 at Boston after coughing it up 19 times in a loss to San Antonio. The 69 points against the Celtics were also a season low.
So there certainly are issues to address in the short term. And then, there’s the big one – Rose.