As the season winds to its close, the Chicago Bulls are mired in injuries, losing and discouragement, having dropped six of their last eight. If Derrick Rose returns, though, would it be enough of a lift to give them a fighting chance against the Miami Heat?
Tom Thibodeau has already drawn two liters of blood from the proverbial turnip, but even he seems to be running out of answers right now. And therein lies the problem. You can’t get what’s not there. There really is no such thing as 110 percent.
The Bulls' problems aren’t so much with what they do have; they lie with what they don’t have, which is a catalyst. They are the baking soda in the volcano school project without the vinegar. Never has it been more apparent what Rose’s value to the Bulls truly is than in the last few weeks.
The team is set up to play off of Rose. The shooters are designed to take shots Rose opens up through his penetration. Without Rose, they have no one who can break down defenses. They are a drive-and-kick offense. Take away the “drive,” and you can’t have a “kick."
Sure, Nate Robinson may occasionally get into the lane with slight success, but he rarely kicks it out. Kirk Hinrich kicks it out of what limited penetration he can achieve, but neither player consistently breaks down defenses.
As a result, what you see is the Bulls passing it around, trying to find some way to feed the ball inside—usually futilely.
Their fast break is more of a slow broke. It’s not very fast, and it’s broken. Their alley-oops tend to end in “Oops!” more than dunks. It’s bad. They’re 24th in fast-break points per game, per teamrankings.com.
There are times when watching the Bulls try to score is like watching the salmon try to fight off the bear, or the fly swallow the frog. It’s so hopeless, it’s almost cute.
Since the break, only four teams have a lower offensive rating than the Bulls, and every playoff team has scored at least three more points per 100 possessions.
Before the break they were merely bad. But as they’ve exhausted themselves and been bombarded with injuries, they’ve sunk from bad to awful. What’s even more disconcerting is that their defense has struggled too. They’re only 11th in defensive rating since the break.
In many ways, their defensive struggles crop from their offensive ineptitude. They are surrendering 1.8 more points on the fast break, typically because of turnovers or long rebounds from long shots, which are a result of not being able to break down defenses.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat put more effort into drinking Gatorade than they do into scoring. Their offense is stunningly effortless.
They last lost a game before the All-Star break, currently owning the second-longest winning streak in NBA history at 24 games and counting.
They aren’t just good, they are historically good. At times it seems as though the only way they can lose is if Michael Jordan drank from the fountain of youth and teamed up with Perseus, Hercules, Thor and Achilles, then added Jason and the Argonauts to flesh out the bench.
When James goes into full-blown cyborg mode, it’s borderline cheating. No one should be allowed to be that good. There should be a rule against him.
Derrick Rose, even at full health, is not that good, and certainly not in recovering health. Rose may have the best of his career still ahead of him, but it’s not going to happen this year.
Still, the Bulls are not as bad as they’ve seemed of late. Their struggles have come because of a list of reasons, not just one. They’ve been the victims of injuries, bad officiating, injuries, a ridiculous schedule and more injuries. Then there are the injuries.
It’s so bad that merely not having their starting backcourt was seen as a good sign when they faced off (and lost) against the Trail Blazers.
Now the schedule is about to turn in their favor. Only five of their final 15 games are against winning teams. They are getting healthier. They have a chance to build a little momentum before they hit the postseason.
And Derrick Rose could still return. If he does he changes everything.
Vinegar, meet baking soda. The inert offense will suddenly have some explosiveness. The team, emotionally drained, will have a hope IV dripping in their veins. Bounce will be back in their steps. Vigor will be back in their defense.
The mere presence of Rose, even if it’s only for 20 minutes a game, could be enough to push them into the conference finals, where they would inevitably face the Heat.
But hope, bounce, vigor and vinegar can only take you so far. Rose might be enough to push the Bulls past the other, weaker, teams in the Eastern Conference, but to move past Miami is too monumental a task.
The Heat have been playing together; they know each other. Their chemistry is real. They are in a kind of rhythm which few teams, literally ever, have been in.
Rose would give the Bulls their fight back, but not a fighting chance. That’s not a criticism of Rose or the Bulls so much as an acknowledgement of how well the Heat are playing. Still, with Rose, the Bulls might be able to steal a game from the Heat, which would be sod to sow the seeds for next season in.