Rose wasn't needed for the Bulls to beat the Magic 98-90. One team is a prospective Eastern Conference title contender with no shortage of scoring weapons, while the other is a young group of complementary players still figuring out who they are. Even without their superstar, it was a game the Bulls should have won—and they did.
Rose probably could have played if the team needed him. He participated fully in practice on Monday and shootaround on Tuesday, and the Bulls listed his status as probable after spraining both ankles last week.
“He practiced yesterday, he practiced today, he warmed up,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau after the game. “He’s not quite there. We’ll see where he is tomorrow. This is all part of it. He’ll be fine.”
There will be plenty of nights like this in the near future for the Bulls. They travel to Milwaukee to play the Bucks on Wednesday, then have another back-to-back on Friday and Saturday against two more Eastern Conference lottery teams, the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. If Rose can play in any of those games, he will. But chances are he won’t, and the Bulls are playing a lot of teams they should handle regardless.
Rose is coming off two major knee surgeries in the last 18 months. No matter how good he feels in practice, the wise approach—the one the Bulls are taking—is to be conservative. Rose’s maintenance plan will likely look a lot like the program the Miami Heat put in place for Dwyane Wade last season. Wade played in 54 games for the Heat last season, often sitting out on back-to-backs and games against lesser teams.
The Bulls have a lot of both of those in the coming month. The rest of November features three more back-to-backs, a stretch of four games in five nights and a seven-game road trip. The majority of the games are winnable even without Rose. If there’s any time when the Bulls can afford to pick their spots to test out Rose, it’s now.
“We’re deep and we have quality players that are ready to step up and perform,” Pau Gasol said after the game, in which the Bulls were also without starting center Joakim Noah who was ill. “We don’t depend on any one player to win and get it done. And it also gives coach more confidence to play players and use them in other situations.”
That depth was on display on Tuesday night with Rose and Noah out. Five Bulls players scored in double figures. Gasol played a season-high 41 minutes and finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks combined for 25 points off the bench. Nikola Mirotic played solid minutes in the second half with Taj Gibson in foul trouble. As a team, they shot 46.7 percent from three-point range.
Thibodeau would have liked Rose available, but he has plenty of practice game-planning for life without him. This is a situation his team has been in before, only this time, it’s by choice, not by necessity. After two years as a playoff also-ran without Rose, the Bulls are ready to be a title contender with him. And that’s going to take some short-term sacrifices with the bigger picture in mind.
“When you go into the season, there’s going to be times when it’s four [games] in five [nights], back-to-backs, whatever you might have,” said Thibodeau. “You’ve got to prepare for all of that stuff.”
Preparing for the grind of an 82-game season when your best player has Rose’s injury history involves a lot of patience and a lot of listening. If Rose isn’t fully healthy right now, he isn’t going to risk another injury. Not when the Bulls have the schedule they have in the immediate future, and not when Rose doesn’t feel comfortable doing the things on the court that make him so indispensable in the first place.
“When you’re going to the hole, you’ve really got to have balance,” Rose said after shootaround on Tuesday. “And one way to have balance is through your ankles. So when your ankles are sore, you’re not going to have balance and you end up hurting something else. I’m just trying to be smart.”
The plan is going to involve a lot of uncertainty in the coming months. There will be games that Rose sits out, and that’s just something everybody will have to deal with. The alternative is watching the less-than-full-strength version of Rose play in games where he isn’t essential, and that’s something nobody—least of all Rose himself—wants.
“I’m just looking for that burst and that speed,” Rose said. “If I can get to a spot, I’ll play. But if not, if I’m not 100 percent, if I can’t play the way I normally play, there’s no point in me being out there right now.”
If everything goes according to plan, Rose will be playing like his old self come playoff time. But getting there involves a lot of planning and patience, and there's no better time to put that to the test than now.
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report.