As the NBA finishes its lockout-shortened regular season, teams around the league, even some that are out of contention, have opted to rest key players rather than maintain a consistent workload. Squads that have participated in such practices include the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.
However, the Chicago Bulls, true to form, have wanted no part of that, even though they have now faced three straight teams that have rested important pieces and will face a Cleveland Cavaliers team Thursday night that will sit rookie sensation Kyrie Irving. Instead, the Bulls have been adamant about finishing the season on a positive note by sticking to their principles, the groundwork that was laid when Tom Thibodeau took over the head coaching position two summers ago.
In Wednesday night’s 92-87 win over the Danny Granger-less Indiana Pacers, the Bulls, who have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, implemented the starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for just the 15th time this season. Thibodeau intended on not “overextending” that group, and rightfully so, because Rose, Hamilton and Deng have all dealt with injury issues over the course of the season.
The Bulls’ coach did a sound job of handling his starters’ minutes. Rose, Hamilton and Boozer each played under 27 minutes, while Noah received 34 and Deng, Chicago’s ironman all season long, got 33.
By his own admission, Rose needs to be playing right now. He has missed 26 games overall due to various injuries and the most glaring stat of all is the fact that he and Hamilton – the Bulls’ big-money starting backcourt – have been on the court together down the stretch of a tight game just three times this year: on the Christmas Day opener, Jan. 25 and, most recently, Jan. 29. Hamilton had just four points and missed 8-of-10 shots against the Pacers.
In 26 minutes of action Wednesday, Rose had 10 points and seven assists, and although he didn’t have a stellar shooting night (3-for-11, including 0-for-2 from three-point range), the 6-foot-3 point guard appeared to move around much better as the contest wore on and scored all three of his baskets in the paint.
His time spent getting treatment and icing the sore right foot/ankle has paid off as the swelling has gone down, and the most important development Wednesday night was that Rose attacked the rim with explosion at times, scoring all three of his baskets in the paint as well as a double-clutch left-handed layup in the first quarter, and returned to pleading to officials for foul calls.
“Every day it’s getting better,” Rose told reporters after the game. “I’m not trying to do too much out there, just trying to play with the team. I’m not trying to get re-injured, that’s the biggest thing. And I’m making sure that I’m playing with a lot of confidence … trying to put pressure on the defense like I wasn’t injured.”
Added Thibodeau: “[He was] a lot more explosive. … Each day he gets better and better, so that’s what we’re looking for. I think he’s getting a lot more comfortable. His body is feeling a lot better and he needs to play in games. I think he’ll get up to speed very quickly.”
Yes, Thibodeau will not play his starters heavy minutes in the regular-season finale Thursday, when the Bulls go for their 50th win. But he won’t completely ease off the gas pedal, either. The veteran coach made it clear that on Thursday the starters will likely be under the same minutes plan as Wednesday.
While certain teams across the league look to rest key stars during what has become a sloppy final week of the season, the Bulls have stood firm behind the fundamentals they set in stone back in December. Thibodeau wants his team to have momentum heading into the postseason, and his decision regarding whether to play or rest starters has been made easier due to the players’ willingness to buy into the reigning Coach of the Year’s philosophy.
“I want our starters to get more time together so it will be similar to tonight,” Thibodeau said. “But we’ll see how the game unfolds. I just want us to continue to take it step by step. Get ready [Thursday], have a great walk-through, know Cleveland and then the rest takes care of itself – don’t worry about all the other stuff.
“There are always things you could do better that we need to work on. But we’re getting there.”