The Chicago Bulls have fresh wounds that need healing, ominous questions that need answering and an identity that must be rediscovered.
Most importantly, they have a pulse.
They're hurt. They're wobbling. But they're not on the canvas just yet.
Losing versatile wing Jimmy Butler—with a turf toe that has him on a "week-to-week" status, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell—was the quick jab. Watching Derrick Rose lose another season to knee injury—this time a torn meniscus—was the haymaker.
But this franchise has always found a way to bounce back. The Bulls might be running short on healthy bodies, but as coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say, they have enough.
Things were supposed to get ugly.
On Dec. 5, the Bulls—sans Butler and Rose—hosted the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in a matchup that could only be called untimely.
Chicago limped into the contest having dropped six of its last seven games. Some of the losses were unsightly (a 39-point drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers), some inexplicable (an 89-83 overtime loss to the Utah Jazz) and others simply unfortunate (a 131-128 triple-overtime defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans).
Sure, Miami's ranks were also thinned:
Still, the Heat had best-player-on-the-planet LeBron James and best-third-wheel-in-the-business Chris Bosh.
But the Bulls had heart. A size advantage, too.
The people in this city, there’s something about when Miami comes to town, you know you wake up in the morning and you feel it. People in this city don’t like the Miami Heat, we don’t like the Miami Heat.
Things did get ugly. But that anticipated kick by Miami on its fallen rivals never came. The Heat, not the Bulls, found themselves on the wrong end of a merciless beating.
Only the final buzzer could stop the carnage, a 107-87 scoreboard reading the lasting tangible evidence of Chicago's awakened spirit.
The schedule might have seemed to set the Bulls up for failure, but the game couldn't have come at a better time.
"Our team needed it," Noah said, via Cowley. "We’ve been through a lot the last couple of weeks."
All that pent up frustration was unleashed in a furious display on the United Center floor.
The Bulls dominated at both ends. They hit 50.0 percent of their field-goal attempts and 52.6 percent of their triples, holding the Heat to just 41.6 and 27.3 percent marks in the respective categories. Chicago battered Miami on the glass 49-27, including a 13-6 edge on the offensive boards.
Thibodeau's team played with more poise, more desire, even more explosiveness.
This was the Chicago team Rose was expected to carry over the top. And this has to be the Bulls team that exceeds expectations without its MVP leader. Again.
Well Within Striking Distance
It's the NBA's worst-kept secret; the Eastern Conference is atrocious:
Obviously, the Bulls need Rose to reach their ultimate postseason goals. But simply finding a playoff ticket will be a breeze without him; the Windy City hosting a first-round series could be the same.
For all of the Bulls' struggles, bad losses have come few and far between. There have been some exceptions, but for the most part, this squad has fallen to some good teams: the Heat, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers.
Chicago might have lost its superstar presence, but its confidence remains. Thibodeau explained his reasons for optimism in the face of adversity to ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers:
There will be some things that develop along the way; some guys are going to step up. But I have a lot of confidence in our team. I think these guys are serious about the way they are approaching things. They play as a team.
These aren't just hollow words, either. The coach is speaking from experience.
"I coached in New York when [we] were the eighth seed and made it the Finals," he told Powers.
Thibs is already looking a bit prophetic.
He's already seen a rise from deep within his ranks. Rookie Tony Snell—whom Thibodeau said had a "long way to go" in training camp, via Cowley—has done an awfully convincing impression of Butler in the third-year wing's absence.
Snell has started in each of Chicago's last five games. Over that stretch, he's provided a badly needed offensive spark (10.8 points per game, 51.3 field-goal percentage) and been a welcome addition to Chicago's perimeter attack (47.8 three-point percentage).
But, just as Butler did before him, Snell is catching his coach's eye for different reasons. With a defensive mindset and a lunch pail at his side, Snell already looks like a player cut from Thibodeau's cloth.
"He's unselfish, he plays for the team," Thibodeau said of the rookie, via Comcast SportsNet's Mark Strotman. "He’s not going to make the same mistake twice, and winning’s important to him."
The Bulls might have needed some time to get over Rose's loss—who wouldn't?—but this team has the chance to find its footing yet. Patience is a virtue when it comes to Rose's rehab, but there's an undeniable sense of urgency on the rest of the roster.
Change Is Coming
Ominous, isn't it?
Well, there's some good and some bad in those three words.
First, let's rip off the Band-Aid and hit the bad notes headfirst.
It's hard to see Chicago's current core getting a chance to do something special beyond this season.
Loul Deng's future in the Windy City is densely clouded. He's headed for unrestricted free agency at season's end. But his exit could come even sooner, as the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson noted, writing that attempts to deal Deng "could be accelerated" in light of Rose's loss.
Carlos Boozer has been an amnesty candidate for years. Chicago has resisted that urge so far, but the temptation to exercise that clause and the need to find more help for Rose could prove irresistible next summer.
If the Bulls hit the trade market, they'll likely rebuke any offers involving Butler or Noah. But that might be a deal-breaker for opposing executives, so it might come down to Chicago's desire for the right impact player (cough, LaMarcus Aldridge, cough).
Before those breakups come, though, the Bulls have the chance to send this group off on a high note. Maybe it won't be as high as they expected, but a playoff series victory or two wouldn't be an impossible outcome given the state of the Eastern Conference.
Ready for the good news now? Of course you are; the end of an era is never an easy topic to discuss.
That highest of high notes is still a possibility. Not a strong one by any means, but a possibility nevertheless.
Rose refuses to close the door on a playoff return. His body has to be right and he'll likely need to be convinced of Chicago's championship chances, but he left himself room for a late-season return.
"If I'm healthy and the situation is right, I'm going to be back playing," Rose said, via Friedell. "But if it's something totally different and the outcome is not how I would want it to be, there's no need."
I can't tell you what Rose is thinking. But to me, it sounds like his way of saying that he won't put himself at risk to help Chicago squeak out a first-round series win. He'll have to envision a much better prize and need some evidence that it's attainable.
There's a dark side to this news, though. Those same will-he-or-won't-he questions that surrounded Chicago's every step last season may circle the franchise once again this spring.
But the bright side is obvious, and it's stunningly brilliant.
The team Rose left behind is special. No one accidentally hangs a 20-point loss on the two-time defending champs.
The Bulls are a force with or without him. It just took a few weeks and a timely visit from a bitter rival for them to remember that.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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