With 17 minutes left in the countdown until tipoff last night, United Center was still half-empty. Rain had beat down on Chicago all day, and adding wet roads to the already grinding rush hour crawl turns I-90 into one long parking lot. As the JumboTron clock hit 16:40, the people who had made it were enough to provide a glimpse of the type of night this was going to be. Shots of the Bulls waiting in the hallway flashed on the video board, moving from player to player. Derrick Rose was last, and when his image came onto the screen, the arena didn’t feel half-empty anymore.
For some, it was probably the first definitive statement they’d received on whether Rose was going to play. A stiff neck kept him out of shootaround that morning, and for a brief stretch, it seemed like the moment Chicago had waited 18 months for would have to wait a few more days.
There’s no sense in rehashing Rose’s saga from that year and a half. When he tore his ACL against Philadelphia in April 2012, the Bulls were the no. 1 seed in the East, with dreams of a title very much alive. Last season, the back and forth about whether Rose should play started in February and went until a depleted Bulls team finally ran out of steam and was put down by Miami. All of that was gone last night. The wait was over.
It was not surprising to walk in the gym here in Las Vegas, nearly 90 minutes before tipoff of Thursday’s first Summer League game, and find Tom Thibodeau already sitting courtside, the first NBA higher-up in the building. Thibodeau is a legendary basketball junkie, fresh off one of the most successful three-season spans of any first-time NBA head coach. The principles of the defense he helped pioneer in Boston during the Celtics’ 2008 championship run have spread around the league, and Thibodeau’s ability to coax his players into almost maniacally consistent adherence to those rules is a major reason Chicago kept winning games last season amid an unending flood of injuries. With Derrick Rose set to return next season at full health, the Bulls look primed to resume their fierce pursuit of Miami’s perch atop the Eastern Conference.
Thibodeau sat down with Grantland for an extensive one-on-one about all things Bulls — but not all things Thibodeau.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Nate Robinson
Here's Nate Robinson celebrating three of his 35 points against New York by imitating (or mocking) Steve Novak's belt celebration. Nate puts the belt on several times (or "roughly seven times," according to Sports Illustrated). What a classic Thibs player. What did you think, Wilson Chandler?
Over the last three seasons, the Bulls have cycled through a bundle of shooting guards, or reasonable facsimiles of shooting guards, in trying to find just one that combines “B”-level shooting, defense, passing, and good health. They’ve tried John Salmons, Keith Bogans, Kirk Hinrich, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Richard Hamilton, and Marco Belinelli, and none have quite provided the ideal combination. Chicago, when whole, has a legit top-10 player in Derrick Rose, a very good all-around wing in Luol Deng, and a prized collection of skilled big men. They don’t need a star at shooting guard; they just need someone who can do everything at a decent level without compromising the team in any one area.
Jimmy Butler had plenty of good stretches last night in the Bulls' 95-83 win over the Lakers, but the best came with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. After stealing an errant Antawn Jamison pass and throwing it down on the other end, Butler, as he seemed to be all game, was draped over Kobe Bryant outside the 3-point line. The shot clock was ticking down, and as it hit :01, Bryant flung the ball toward the rim, but hit nothing. The horn sounded, and the ball was back to the Bulls.
Bryant finished the game 7-of-22 from the field, and everyone from Steve Kerr to the rest of the Bulls locker room had the same theory why. Kobe’s 42 minutes were topped only by Butler’s 43, and for the second straight game, Butler showed he had no trouble playing the part of Luol Deng, who’s joined Derrick Rose on the list of injured Bulls.
This year was supposed to be a lost one for Chicago. With Rose’s torn ACL keeping him out until at least the All-Star break, a team ravaged in the offseason by financial constraints seemed more destined for the lottery than the conference finals. But with last night’s win, the Bulls are now 24-16, good for fifth in the East and just a game and a half back of the Knicks for the no. 2 seed. With Rose’s return no more than a few weeks away, the question has shifted from how the Bulls will tread water without him to just how good they can be with him.
With his team nursing a 94-86 lead in the waning moments of last night’s game against Philadelphia, Chicago center Joakim Noah crouched low on the left block as Evan Turner attempted the second of two free throws. As the ball arced toward the rim, Philly’s backup center, the lumbering Spencer Hawes, took one step toward the baseline, spun off his left foot, and put Noah onto his back.
It was an odd sight considering the state of unrelenting fervor Noah brings to the court, but it’s hard to find Noah at fault for the momentary letdown. The play came as Noah was putting the finishing touches on his sixth outing in the past 12 days in which he’s played at least 41 minutes. In fact, in back-to-back games against the Clippers and Sixers, Noah played a staggering 87 minutes, raising his season average to a mind-boggling 40.1 — a number that no big man has put up since Tim Duncan averaged 40.6 during the 2001-02 season.
With the absence of Derrick Rose, this type of usage has been born out of desperation. Last year, a deep Bulls bench featuring Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, and C.J. Watson went a long way toward picking up the slack as Rose missed 27 games with an assortment of injuries. This year, those four all have new addresses, a product of the Bulls’ offseason effort to cut costs. They’ve been replaced by an assortment of bargain-priced veterans and unproven young players. Though there have been some surprising developments — most notably the steady play of second-year wing Jimmy Butler and Warriors castoff Nate Robinson — the bench is still significantly lacking compared to a year ago.