Despite the fact that they were without MVP point guard Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls widened their lead over the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference by virtue of a 106-102 victory.
The surprising star for Chicago was John Lucas III, and he will be of the utmost importance moving forward.
Rose missed his 11th game of the season Wednesday, this time with a groin injury, so Lucas received the lion's share of the minutes. He certainly didn't disappoint as he poured in 24 points in 27 minutes off the bench. It marked Lucas' second big game of the season with Rose out of the lineup.
While it's obvious Rose is going to be the man when he's in the lineup, there is a vital role for Lucas to play down the stretch. The Bulls currently have a 3.5-game lead on the Heat for first in the conference, and 7.5-game lead on the Orlando Magic. With such a nice cushion, Chicago can afford to take its time with Rose.
That means the Bulls shouldn't press him into action until he is back to 100 percent. That may take some time, but Chicago has proven that it can win without him, even against the team that many consider to be the best in the league.
On top of that, when Rose does return, the Bulls will have the benefit of resting him often. Lucas has been an inconsistent player over the course of his career, but if he can continue to contribute in relief of Rose, then it will bode well for Rose's health heading into the playoffs.
Rose being healthy has to be the Bulls' top priority right now, even more so than getting the No. 1 seed. Because of the cushion Chicago has, though, it may have the luxury of keep Rose fresh and grabbing the top seed as well. Lucas' play makes the decision a lot easier for head coach Tom Thibodeau in regard to how much he should play Rose late in the year.
Will John Lucas play a big role down the stretch?
While they won't want to coddle Rose too much and must ensure he is in a rhythm come playoff time, he should take it easy in the coming weeks. The Bulls have plenty of winnable games coming up against the likes of Portland and Toronto, so Lucas can carry the load for a little while longer.
Perhaps Lucas wouldn't be an effective player if forced into action for the long haul, but he can be an explosive scorer in short spurts, and that is precisely what the Bulls need when Rose is out of action. There aren't many teams in the league that could continue to excel without their best player, but that is what the Bulls have done this season.
C.J. Watson has filled in for Rose much of the time and actually got the start on Wednesday, but Lucas is more capable of being the dynamic scorer that Rose is. Players go on hot streaks in the NBA all the time, just like Jeremy Lin did with the New York Knicks. While Lucas may cool down, the Bulls should ride the hot hand while they can.
Rose is undoubtedly the key to bringing a title back to Chicago, but in order to do that he will need to be rejuvenated. Come playoff time Lucas may barely see the floor, but in the grand scheme of things he is a huge piece to the championship puzzle as his play can allow Rose to be at his best.