Team's mental fatigue playing large part in Bulls' struggles

Team's mental fatigue playing large part in Bulls' struggles
February 27, 2013, 11:30 am
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To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Derrick Rose is not walking through that door.

The words of the current Louisville head coach when he was coaching the Celtics are a go-to staple when a team is mentally exhausted and in search of relief, which the Bulls are right now, but they're also probably accurate. But more on that later.

More than heavy minutes, injuries, depth issues, bouts of inconsistency on offense, defensive lapses and the spectre of Rose's eventual return, the team is presently spent, probably more in the heads of individual players than even the actual wear and tear on their bodies.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau isn't changing his hard-driving ways or coaching philosophy anytime soon and he shouldn't, as his methods are what made his squad the most successful regular-season group in the league the past two seasons, even in the face of all the aforementioned maladies, including Rose missing nearly half of last season.

But this isn't the same team and for whatever reason, it's not currently responding to adversity in the same manner.

One of Thibodeau's favorite lines is "play to your strengths and hide your weaknesses," something the Bulls haven't done recently, as help defense, solid ball movement, dominant rebounding and sheer will, things that have been trademarks under the coach, have only been sporadically practiced simultaneously.

That obviously can't happen when facing the Heats and Thunders of the world, leading to predictable results, but even when it occurs against a team like the Cavaliers -- who were missing their own franchise player and coming into the United Center facing an 11-game losing streak against the home team Tuesday night -- they become vulnerable, as evidenced by the final score.

[MORE: Despite Boozer's 27, Bulls can't handle Cavs]

This team is what it is, as are most NBA teams at this point in the season, so no one player can be singled out for the loss or even the team's February slide, as the strong suits and limitations of the entire roster have been well documented.

The same narrow margin for error exists, but instead of making up for the inevitable -- a Nate Robinson rushed shot, a Luol Deng shooting slump and a Carlos Boozer blown defensive assignment here, a Kirk Hinrich injury, a Marquis Teague unforced turnover and a Joakim Noah failed scoring opportunity in the post there -- by compensating with increased intensity, it almost feels like they're sometimes waiting for providence to intervene and opponents to to bend to their will, when the scouting report on the Bulls, beyond offensive plays and defensive schemes, is to not let them outwork you.

Which brings us back to Rose.

With the former league MVP in the lineup, those things still factored in, but his ability to take over games on a nightly basis, along with a different supporting cast and locker-room voices that embraced being true role players, made it possible for the Bulls to endure periodic swoons during games and fight through rough stretches during the dog days of the NBA schedule, when teams are already looking toward the playoffs, but still have a large chunk of the regular season games to go.

Now, Rose is and always has been a team-first guy, but more significantly, he's a winner.

Nobody knows for sure if and when he'll return to the court--despite whispers that he could come back as soon as this week--but ask yourself this: Whether or not the Bulls are in overachieving mode and appear as capable as any team in the East to advance to the conference finals to face defending-champion Miami or are just first- or second-round playoff fodder, is it worth it to come back if he's not mentally ready and to immediately be leaned on as the team's offensive savior, just to have a handful of exciting performances, likely culminating in a playoff exit at a stage he's advanced to before?

[MORE: Bulls' intensity still not showing]

If fans are that desperate to see the All-Star point guard explode off the dribble, get in the lane and execute one of his acrobatic reverse layups at the United Center, the time to see it is before an actual Bulls game.

Rose is a competitor and not just as an individual, as he values team success more than anything else, something Chicago fans know and appreciate about him, but have tended to forget in the midst of all the hype surrounding his recovery.

He's also a person adept at tuning out the noise around him, so while he can't completely ignore all of the hubbub, it would be unwise to expect him to play only to satiate the desires of others, from fans and media to even his teammates, who aren't personally pressuring him with their words, but more with their actions on the court, as their up-and-down outings reveal a yearning for his talents.

But they, more than anybody else, understand that Rose probably shouldn't be expected to walk through that door this season, so for now, they'll settle for glimpses of his unique game during five-on-five sessions at the Berto Center, with the knowledge that only he can accurately gauge what's best for his career.

In the meantime, it's best to keep in mind that the sky isn't falling and the Bulls are more than capable of turning things around, competing in the playoffs and if not living up to the lofty standards of the previous two campaigns, having a successful season.