Luol Deng was in the emergency room undergoing a spinal tap for viral meningitis. Kirk Hinrich, immobilized by a bruised calf, was limited to cheerleader role. Nate Robinson was so queasy he leaned over a garbage pail during his turns on the bench. Feverish Taj Gibson had the shakes. Joakim Noah was limping or grimacing or on edge about when the next flare-up of plantar fasciitis would force him to sit.
The injured, sick and exhausted Chicago Bulls arrive at AmericanAirlines Arena Monday night for Game 1 of their second-round NBA playoff series against a Miami Heat team that has been sleeping like a baby for an entire week.
Now would be the perfect time for Derrick Rose to make his comeback. The Bulls, who almost gagged against the Brooklyn Nets before surviving Game 7 on Saturday, need bodies in uniform. Rose has been wearing a suit.
But don’t count on Rose coming to the rescue. The dynamic point guard — MVP of the league two years ago — has been out since major knee surgery on May 12, 2012. After a grueling rehab, Rose returned to full-court scrimmaging Feb. 18. Doctors cleared him to play. But Rose has not felt right. A strange waiting game has persisted since.
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There have been calculations of Rose’s readiness — whether he’s 80 percent or needs to be 110 percent. Accounts of his domination in practice. Speculation about the intent of his sponsors and “handlers.” His declaration that only God knows his timetable. Criticism that he’s writing off this season. Criticism of the criticism. Questioning of his manhood.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and Bulls players have preached patience. They have resolutely backed Rose, who has told them how frustrated he is not to be playing. They have moved on without him.
Steve Kerr, the TNT broadcaster and former Bulls guard, said last week that Rose “owes it to his teammates” to get back on the court given that they are playing through pain.
“If this is about, ‘Hey, it doesn’t feel right and I’m worried I can hurt it,’ then no way should he play,” Kerr said on an ESPN radio interview. “But if this is just about, ‘You know, gosh, I’m just not quite confident yet,’ I would appeal to him and say, ‘Can you give us 20 minutes?’ And if you’re Derrick, you’ve been watching Noah and Hinrich play on one leg this whole series, at what point do you start to feel sort of self-conscious and guilty about what’s unfolding?”
Hinrich said Rose should not succumb to outside pressure.
“We don’t feel that way,” Hinrich responded. “It has been a very difficult year for Derrick. I’m not one to speak on how anybody else’s body feels. We know what kind of guy he is and what kind of teammate he is.”
Thibodeau distinguished between Rose’s career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament tear and the injuries bothering his teammates.
“It requires time. He’s 24 years old. We’re not going to rush him back,” Thibodeau said. “If that means we wait another game, if that means we wait until next year, so be it. We want him completely comfortable and we’re not going to make that mistake.
“Derrick owes it to do what’s right, and the more I’m around him, the more I’m impressed with this guy’s character. He’s not being swayed by anybody. I would never question him, ever.”
Thibodeau won’t say it, but the Bulls could really use Rose if they hope to entertain a chance of upsetting the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Chicago usually gives Miami a tough test, split their regular season games 2-2 — and ended Miami’s near-record win streak at 27. But a 2-2-1-1-1 series is a different animal.
Rose’s drive-or-dish skill poses a dangerous choose-your-poison matchup predicament for opponents. He would place considerable strain on Miami’s guards and make Chicago’s big men bigger than they seem against Miami’s post players. He would help the undermanned Bulls sustain the energy needed for their signature rabid defense.
He would not be at his best, having missed game action for a year, but whatever sort of disruption he might pose would be overridden by his reinforcement quotient.
Without him, the Bulls must continue to rely on the wildly creative — sometimes too creative — Robinson and gimpy Hinrich in the backcourt. Noah is a relentless rebounder and scrappy opportunist but can’t be a miracle worker for a team that has trouble scoring.
If Rose came back and re-injured his knee in a losing effort — that’s the worst-case scenario in the back of everyone’s mind.
Expect Rose to watch from the bench Monday unless something clicks for him and he feels ready to go. He would inject drama and suspense into a series expected to be one-sided. But only he can decide if there’s risk and if it’s worth taking.