NEW YORK—Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has some tough decisions to make before Game 2 of his team's first-round playoff series against Brooklyn.
With the late-season return to health of several players on the roster—including All-Star center Joakim Noah, who made a surprise start in Game 1 Saturday night, after revealing Friday that he had a tear in his right foot, due to his ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis—the Bulls had nearly a full complement of players available for the postseason opener.
On one hand, the Bulls' newfound depth is an obvious positive.
In the postseason, however, teams typically utilize tighter rotations of up to nine players, and certainly don't go as deep into the bench as the Bulls did Saturday at the Barclays Center, when 10 players received playing time.
Complicating matters was Noah's presence, as the New York native, understandably amped up about playing his first NBA game in Brooklyn—he missed the Bulls' two regular-season road games against the Nets—was not expected to suit up, even by the coaching staff.
In theory, Noah's high activity level clearly benefits the Bulls, but hampered by injury and suffering from a lack of timing resulting from limited practice time, an already-formidable matchup with Nets counterpart Brook Lopez, himself an Eastern Conference All-Star center, tilted in Brooklyn's favor in Game 1.
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“We love having Jo out there. He’s been a warrior playing through what he’s playing through. He’s been playing through it the whole season it seems like. We appreciate him being out there and giving up his body for us. That alone, having him out there is much better than not having him out there,” said Carlos Boozer, the lone Bulls player who truly excelled in the series opener, after Sunday’s film session at the team’s Manhattan hotel Sunday afternoon.
“He did the best he could. It’s hard to run around when your foot hurts every time you step on it. But he’s doing the best he can and we appreciate that. I hope it’s not that bad. He’s doing a good job. We have a good training staff. We just appreciate him giving up his body for us.”
Assuming Noah continues to improve physically, the Bulls may indeed have an eventual advantage, or at least break even in the positional battle, but if Noah isn't at his versatile, unconventional frenetic best because of his ailment, perhaps veteran understudy Nazr Mohammed, whose physical nature is equipped to counter the interior aggressiveness the Nets displayed in Game 1, is a better short-term option, with top reserve Taj Gibson also providing spot minutes in the middle.
Thibodeau initially said that Noah—as well as starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who suffered a left-thigh bruise during Game 1—“felt pretty good” Sunday, before saying, “Let me clarify that, relatively good for like where he is. Not quite the same soreness that he had previously, so he feels like he can do something here, which is a good sign, so we’ll see where he is.”
Noah will start Monday’s Game 2—“if he’s healthy,” Thibodeau added as a caveat—and the coach insisted that Noah’s presence, even while ailing, benefits the team.
“He’s a plus. I think we feed off what he can do defensively, and offensively he has a very unique skillset because of the way he can pass the ball,” he said.
But the Bulls' rotational issues extend beyond center, as a suddenly crowded shooting-guard spot is also of some concern.
Jimmy Butler has established himself as the starter—and fared decently in his first meaningful playoff outing, though his help-side defense was lacking, likely because of paying such close attention to his assignment, Joe Johnson—but Marco Belinelli and Rip Hamilton seeming to vie for minutes as his backup isn't an ideal scenario.
“We’ve had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup. You’re also looking at guys who are trying to come back from injury so you don’t know where they are,” explained Thibodeau, who acknowledged that he could end up deciding between one of the two shooting guards. The only way to find out was to play. And so we have a little more clarity. And we’ll see where we are tomorrow.”
Although Hamilton's Bulls tenure has been plagued by injuries, he's been an experienced playoff performer throughout a distinguished NBA career and as recently as the streak-ending overtime home win over the Knicks—in which he had 14 points, eight assists and no turnovers—he's proven that he has something left in the tank.
At the same time, while he's reluctantly accepted a reserve role since returning from a long layoff after suffering a bulging disk in his back, Hamilton isn't the type of player that can be expected to flourish in short minutes.
“It’s definitely different than what I’m used to, but it’s just something where I’ve got to read the game and like I always say, whatever they need me to do, I’m going to go ahead and do it,” Hamilton told CSNChicago.com about coming off the bench. “It’s basketball. Once you get out there, you’ve just got to get out there and figure it out.”
Despite his diplomacy, the veteran shooting guard is better off not playing at all if he isn't given a significant opportunity—it's more disrespectful to play the former champion in small, tryout-like stints or garbage minutes than to sit him completely—meaning that Belinelli, with his deeper range and ability to function as a primary ballhandler, particularly in pick-and-roll scenarios, should be the recipient of the bulk of the reserve playing time on the wing.
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Belinelli's presence would also mitigate backup point guard Nate Robinson's difficulties running the Bulls' offense against Brooklyn's set defense, as he's more dangerous operating with his instant-offense tendencies wholly unleashed and the duo worked well in tandem previously, albeit as temporary starters during the regular season.
Regardless of whether or not Thibodeau decides to shorten the Bulls’ rotation—his trademark “we’ll see” was his response when pressed on the matter—the sense of urgency the team displayed during a regular season in which they frequently didn’t have many healthy bodies must return.
“A lot of it is just what we've been doing all year. We didn’t do what we’ve been doing, I think,” All-Star Luol Deng said of the Bulls’ Game 1 performance. “We’ve had a lot of guys out, a lot of guys back in the lineup and sometimes, you tend to—not that you give up—but you tend to relax a little bit, thinking that guys are back, now you’re deeper and sometimes when you have those guys out, you play harder knowing that they’re out and I think we’ve got to have the mindset of playing like how we’ve been.”
The one player the Bulls are unlikely to add to their rotation Monday—aside from Vladimir Radmanovic, who is dealing with a back problem and was inactive for Game 1, or deep reserves Malcolm Thomas, swingman Daequan Cook and rookie point guard Marquis Teague—is Derrick Rose, who sat on the bench for the second time all season Saturday.
Even as the Bulls attempt to bounce back from a 1-0 series deficit, the focus on the former league MVP’s season-long absence hasn’t waned and in fact, perhaps being under the bright lights of New York City and on the big stage of the playoffs, it will only further intensify, especially with Noah playing through pain and as the national media collectively takes a cursory glance back at the team’s injury-riddled regular season.
But in the midst of making adjustments, preparing for Game 2 and the actual business of coaching his team, Thibodeau remained steadfastly resolute on his approach to Rose’s unique situation.
“It’s not bothersome because I know all that he’s putting into it and I know who he is. I know his character and he’s done amazing things for our organization, and he’s doing all he can. That’s all you can ever ask a guy to do, so there’s always going to be some negativity, but I think the vast majority of it is very positive,” he said. “As [Bulls team physician] Dr. Cole said from Day 1, it was going to be eight months to a year. Okay, so, you hope for the best, you plan for the worst.
"The thing is, we don’t want him out there until he’s completely comfortable and he’s not comfortable yet, so that’s part of what we expected. As long as he continues to work the way he has, I’m good with it. I know how important he is and not just him. This would apply to any other guy. If a guy gets injured like that, you have to be patient. Everyone’s recovery’s different and you don’t want someone out there who’s not comfortable, and if they’re still injured we don’t want them out there, so when he’s healthy and he’s ready to go, he’ll play.”
If the calmness he’s displayed in deflecting the press’ persistent queries about Rose’s eventual returns is reflected in the Bulls’ preparation for Monday night’s game, Thibodeau’s team could return to Chicago with a series split.
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Unlike his debut postseason in Chicago, when nobody imagined the Bulls had the potential to advance to the doorstep of the NBA Finals, or last year’s playoffs, in which Rose’s devastating injury in the opening first-round game against Philadelphia—and subsequently, Noah’s, later in the series—ended their run, there was a better grasp on the potential of this season’s squad and thus, optimism, at least for the first round.
But Brooklyn apparently didn’t follow the storyline of the plucky, blue-collar team knocking off the flashier, finesse higher seed and thus, the remainder of the series won’t only be about intangibles, as the Nets have changed their regular-season narrative of being too unfocused and not tough enough.
Thibodeau has shown he’s highly capable in three seasons at the helm, but must now display it in the playoffs, where reputations are cemented.