Before Monday night's 92-72 drubbing of the Indiana Pacers, the Chicago Bulls ruled C.J. Watson out due to a sprained left ankle. The team received more troubling news during the game when Rip Hamilton suffered a right shoulder injury while navigating through a screen set by Pacers center Roy Hibbert.
On the very next defensive stand, the 34-year-old took another shot to his right shoulder, this time by Paul George, as he went up to contest the Pacers forward's jumper. Hamilton had a noticeable grimace, grabbing his shoulder in the process, and finally checked out at the 10-minute, 47-second mark of the first quarter.
For the Bulls, the protocol regarding a hurt player remains the same. Hamilton is day-to-day and will be examined Tuesday. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was unsure about his starting shooting guard's status, but he admitted that, at first, he believed Hamilton suffered a "stinger, but that wasn't the case."
"He tried to shake it off," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "... [The training staff] said they have to wait to see [Tuesday]. I haven't had a chance to go back and speak with [athletic trainer] Fred [Tedeschi] yet. But hopefully he'll be OK."
Signed by the Bulls before the season to provide a difference-maker at two-guard, Hamilton has missed more games (24) than he's played (16) this season because of groin and thigh injuries. He is putting up 11.3 points and 2.5 assists per game for the campaign -- respectable averages, but not the type of production most Bulls fans had hoped for -- and appears primed to be sidelined for an extended period of time once again with the injured shoulder.
Hamilton had appeared in four consecutive games since returning from a 13-game absence, but the former NBA champion played limited minutes and scored in double figures just once during that span. For Hamilton and the Bulls, just when it seemed as if he was in the lineup for good, he suffered yet another setback.
"To me, we're hopeful he'll be back sooner rather than later," Thibodeau said. "We're disappointed for him because he's put a lot of work in to getting back. But we also feel that we have more than enough to win with."
Indeed, Ronnie Brewer posted 12 points and seven rebounds in 39 minutes of action as the Bulls picked up their second statement win in a row Monday. The versatile guard has averaged nine points and almost five rebounds in five games since the All-Star break and performs well whether he's in a starting or reserve role.
With or without Hamilton, the Bulls' mantra will remain the same. Thibodeau expects the next man to step up on a nightly basis and, obviously, has plenty of confidence in Brewer, who will start Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks if Hamilton is not able to play.
"Ronnie's been terrific all year," the reigning Coach of the Year told the assembled media. "Whether you start him [or] bring him off the bench, [he is] always ready, brings energy, is going to make scramble, hustle plays. So he's a great pro. ... Ronnie's proven that he's done extremely well as a starter. We're confident in his ability and then everyone else has to step up. The next guy steps up."
Still, the Bulls know how much Hamilton means to the team. His backcourt partner, Derrick Rose, had a positive outlook, though.
"I think everything should be fine, where it's nothing serious," Rose said of Hamilton. "I haven't heard nothing. So, it shouldn't be nothing that serious."
Added Joakim Noah: "We know we need [Hamilton] to get to where we want to get to. But Ronnie Brewer was an animal out there tonight."
Meanwhile, John Lucas III filled the void at backup point guard admirably in Watson's absence, pouring in 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting to go along with one steal. He scored nine in the first half when he gave the Bulls a much-needed lift, and he continues to be a player whom Thibodeau can rely on.
"John Lucas did a terrific job filling in," Thibodeau told the assembled media. "He was ready to go and that gave us a big lift."
As reported here last Thursday, the Bulls are likely to re-sign veteran point guard Mike James after the league's March 15 trade deadline. However, if Chicago is without Watson for a while -- not to mention Hamilton -- it could very well pick up James earlier than expected. James' coaches and teammates have constantly praised him, citing his work ethic and veteran presence.
Rose's minutes: The Bulls led the Pacers 82-60 with just over six minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, but Indiana then went on a 10-1 run that forced Thibodeau to put a pair of starters, Noah and Luol Deng, back into the game.
In the third quarter, Deng was called for an offensive foul and banged his left wrist as he braced his fall. The veteran small forward grabbed his wrist but stayed in the game and went on to scoring a game-high 20 points.
Of course, the Bulls were able to close out the game strongly -- but what was the reason why Rose sitting and stretching on the bench during the Pacers' rally?
"If it got any closer, he was going in. He was in the bullpen warming up," Thibodeau said with a laugh.
Standings update: The Bulls still have the best record in the league at 32-8. The Oklahoma City Thunder are tied with the Bulls in the loss column but have two less victories.
Through Monday's games, the Miami Heat were 2.5 games behind the Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings.