Chicago Bulls players and coaches all have raved about the impact free-agent acquisition Rip Hamilton has had on the team. The veteran shooting guard is averaging almost 15 points and four assists this season, giving the Bulls the scoring punch a much-needed scoring punch at two-guard and exhibiting a surprisingly effective passing game.
Although, the 33-year-old has played in just 10 of the Bulls' 21 games and missed Friday night's 107-100 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks because of a right thigh bruise and sore left groin. He suffered the thigh injury in Wednesday night's 95-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers while still nursing a groin he messed up Dec. 30 against the Los Angeles Clippers. He's a game-time decision for Sunday afternoon's rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, as the Bulls start a season-long, nine-game road trip.
However, Heat star Dwyane Wade on Saturday sounded as if he expects Hamilton to play in the nationally televised (ABC) game and praised the longtime former Detroit Piston. Both players are very familiar with each other, having faced off in tightly contested playoff series in 2005 and 2006, not to mention their many regular-season battles. In 2010-11, Hamilton averaged 18 points in two games against the Heat.
Add Wade to the list of people who believe Hamilton is a major boost for a club that won a league-best 62 games a season ago.
"Obviously, [Hamilton is] a guy who's a catch and shoot player," Wade told reporters in Miami. "Runs around a lot, makes [defenders] use a lot of energy. He's a veteran guy, he's a tough defender and he's going to make you earn everything. It was amazing to me that he went through waivers untouched. They got an opportunity to pick him up and it’s a perfect situation for them."
While Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and point guard Derrick Rose have claimed Sunday's tilt is just another game, there will surely be a playoff atmosphere at AmericanAirlines Arena and everyone, whether or not they admit it, will treat it essentially as a statement game. The guess here is that Hamilton plays against the Heat, the first of four games between the teams. If he's not able to go, Ronnie Brewer will make his 14th start of the campaign.
There's no question that the Bulls want to defeat the Heat on Sunday in hopes of extracting a little bit of revenge for Miami's five-game series win last spring. But they know long-term health is more important than winning a regular-season contest in this condensed, 66-game schedule.
"We want all our pieces healthy, obviously," center Joakim Noah told the assembled media after Saturday's practice. "But we feel like we have enough to win. We're just going to go out there and compete as hard as possible and see what happens."
Bulls forward Luol Deng is also a game-time decision for Sunday due to a torn ligament in his left wrist, which he suffered last Saturday against the Charlotte Bobcats. Although, given the fact that Deng told Bulls.com's BullsTV before Friday's game that he is around "a week away, maybe more," don't bank on him playing.
"I really don't know, it's hard to tell," said Deng, who refuted reports that he was planning on returning Sunday. "It's definitely a bad injury, but I really believe that I'll be back soon and [am] doing everything I can right now just to make sure I'm back soon enough."
Deng had been playing at an All-Star level this season, averaging 15.9 points, 7.5 rebounds in 38.3 minutes per game while giving the Bulls a strong presence on both ends of the court on a consistent basis. The 26-year-old has missed three games in a row and has been told he can't suffer further damage to his wrist -- but, obviously, right now the injury is too painful for him to play.
Over the past few years, Deng has repeatedly said appearing in every single game means a lot to him. He desperately wants to return as soon as the pain subsides enough.
"He did more today than he's ever done," Thibodeau told reporters Saturday when asked about Deng's progress. "So he's feeling better, but he's still not practicing yet. He's doing a lot of individual work and a lot of therapy. But he's getting closer.
"He's more aggressive with his moves. Each day he's adding different layers to what he's doing."
In place of Deng, Kyle Korver started on Friday and poured in nine points. But the reserve forward doesn't match up well with a Heat starting lineup that features Wade and LeBron James at the wing positions. With Thibodeau most likely hesitant to give rookie Jimmy Butler the starting nod, Korver figures to start at small forward if Deng sits out his fourth consecutive game. Then, the reigning Coach of the Year would probably have Korver defend Heat point guard Mario Chalmers while Rose checks Wade.
Deng is not likely to play against the Heat, but Thibodeau did not close the door on that possibility.
"We'll see how he feels [Sunday]," he said. "He's feeling better today and hopefully he's feeling better [Sunday]."