DEERFIELD, ILL. -- Saturday afternoon’s practice at the Berto Center, just prior to departing for a three-game West Coast road trip, was a light one, according to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, which makes sense, considering his team’s cadre of walking wounded.
Starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, dealing with a right-foot injury, and top reserve Taj Gibson, on the mend from a sprained left knee, are still “day-to-day,” the coach revealed -- Thibodeau wouldn’t rule them out for Sunday’s matinee game against the Lakers in Los Angeles -- while veteran shooting guard Rip Hamilton won’t make the trip to California at all, in the wake of his back ailment, for which there is no timetable, but the team’s medical staff is letting it “calm down” after the starting shooting guard experienced lower back spasms before the team’s Feb. 28 home win over Philadelphia.
“It was a very light day. Rip didn’t go; Kirk just did some stuff on the bike. Some guys had a recovery day today. Very light,” Thibodeau explained. “You never know [about Hinrich and Gibson playing Sunday]. Tomorrow’s a long way off.”
Regardless of who suits up for the Bulls, the matchup against the Lakers is a game the Bulls are primed for.
Despite their current status as the ninth-place team in the Western Conference, the Lakers have been surging recently.
“I think it [would be] a big win for us,” Joakim Noah told CSNChicago.com. “Beating the Lakers is always huge and they’re fighting for their lives, so we’ve got to be ready.”
Thibodeau added: “Their last 20 games, they’ve played very well. Very well. They’ve gotten healthy; they’ve gotten comfortable, shooting the ball well. [Dwight] Howard’s gotten a lot better, Kobe’s Kobe [Bryant], so they keep a lot of pressure on you. Very good pick-and-roll team, they’ve been shooting the three great, so we’ve got to take care of the ball, the paint, react out, cover the line and then we’ve got to rebound.”
Bryant, who Thibodeau was first acquainted with when the future Hall of Famer was a teenager set to make the prep-to-pros leap in suburban Philadelphia -- Thibodeau was a 76ers assistant coach -- even at his advanced age, has had a phenomenal individual campaign in the face of the Lakers’ up-and-down season.
Always one of the game’s top scorers, he’s taken on added playmaking duties and has even defended opposing point guards, taking both responsibilities out of the hands of backcourt mate Steve Nash.
“It says a lot about his will. You look at him, to still be playing at the level that he’s playing at, it’s incredible, really. He’s doing everything: Playmaking, shooting, playing defense, you name it. Playing through injuries. He’s a great leader because of what he does when he’s on the floor. When you play with that type of intensity, that kind of will, he’s moving that team in the right direction,” Thibodeau explained. “He doesn’t have to shoot the ball well to really help his team win and that’s what he figured out a long time ago. Sometimes it’s his ability to play-make, sometimes his ability to get to the free-throw line, his ability to move without the ball. He can have a poor shooting night and still end up with 25 points, so you have to concentrate on your body position; you have to make him play in a crowd. Whatever the game needs, that’s what he’s going after. If he needs to rebound, he’ll rebound. There’s not much he doesn’t do.
“He’s always taken that [defensive] challenge on. He wants to guard the opponent’s best player and I think his passing has always been overlooked. He’s not afraid at the end of the game; he wants to take the big shot. His greatness is well-documented,” he continued. “You measure it by the championships, his ability to perform at such a high level for such a long period of time, to do it year in, year out. He’s always adding something to his game. He’s a student of the game. He studies the way he’s being guarded. He’s seen every type of defense that could possibly be thrown at him, so he’s had a remarkable career.”
As for Howard, while the center has had a disappointing debut year in L.A. -- from his play on the court, at least partially due to injuries, to his comments to the media about a litany of topics -- he appears to be finding his stride as of late and has even developed some chemistry with Bryant.
“Well, I think health is the big thing. Dwight Howard has been a great player -- a dominating player -- in this league for a long time and when you have back surgery, it’s going to take you a little bit of time. But you can see he has gotten a lot healthier,” Thibodeau said. “Again, he can impact the game in a lot of different ways himself. He can do it defensively -- that part’s obvious: The shot-blocking, the rebounding -- but offensively, his screening, his rolling, his ability to run the floor. Those things all make them a hard team to be guarded.”
Noah concurred, “He’s still Dwight. People can say whatever they want. He’s still a beast. There’s nothing like him in the league and it’s always exciting to play against the best.”
Having snapped their two-game losing streak with Friday night’s win over Utah at the United Center, the Bulls are starting their week-long trip on a positive note.
The man who made that possible was shooting guard Marco Belinelli, who hit his third game-winning shot of the season and notched his third consecutive game of 20 points or more.
[RELATED: Belinelli plays hero in Bulls win]
Thibodeau praised the Italian native’s contributions, attributing his success to finding a greater comfort level as the season has progressed.
“I think he just understands the schemes better. You go into a new system, it’s going to be a little bit different, but this guy’s been around the league a long time. I think he has an understanding the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. But I think it’s just a matter of him getting repetitions and just doing it, then having an understanding of how it all works together,” he said. “We expected him to play well when we signed him. He already had a body of work. We already knew what he could do and I like the way he’s approached things here. He’s very serious, a serious-minded player, has a great approach to the game and I think when you do the right things, you’ll improve.”
Noah chimed in about his clutch teammate: “He’s been huge, man. He’s been working really hard and he’s won a lot of ballgames for us, so nothing but good things to say about ‘Belinelli,’” saying the sharpshooter’s last name in a mock Italian accent.
Of course, even when playing a high-profile opponent and enough surrounding the team on the court as the regular season winds down to keep them busy, the ongoing saga of if and when superstar Derrick Rose will return to the court remains a major focus.
In the wake of Friday’s ESPNChicago.com story about Rose not feeling ready to play after receiving medical clearance -- the former league MVP was unhappy about that characterization, according to a source -- Thibodeau didn’t indicate the point guard’s comeback was imminent.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he said. “There is no timetable.”
[RELATED: Rose cleared to play, but no word when]
If Rose does return this season, logic -- as well as more thought-out discussions about the process, according to a person with knowledge of the situation -- would dictate that he logs a month of regular-season action before the playoffs.
That line of thinking would suggest that if he does return, the trip to California would provide an opportunity, especially with no back-to-back games, ample practice time between contests and not having to deal with the pressure of a supportive, but increasingly frantic hometown crowd.