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April 28, 2012
Bitter End
Bulls Must Rise With No Rose

by Bradford Doolittle


CHICAGO _ And it was going so nicely, too. The Bulls' first unit was playing like they'd been together for 66 games. The offense was crisp, efficient and egalitarian. Derrick Rose didn't look quite 100 percent, but he had plenty of explosiveness to get where he needed to go on the court. Rip Hamilton came off screens, swung the ball to the weak side, ran the floor and scored 19 points on just seven shots. He and Rose looked like they'd shared a backcourt for years. The first unit that had looked so rusty and fractured during the month of April? Forget about. This team wasn't missing a beat.

When Rose knocked down a 28-footer with 6:07 left, it put the Bulls up by 20 points. Game, set and match. Both teams went on cruise control, yet Rose was still on the court. He needed one rebound and one assist for a triple double, the only apparent bit of intrigue remaining in the contest. Luol Deng put the ball on the floor and sank a floater. The score was 97-81 and the Sixers called timeout. Just 2 minutes and 52 seconds remained on the clock. Time to clear the bench. Give rookie Jimmy Butler some run. John Lucas III, who has come up big so often for the Bulls this season, hadn't gotten in, and it would be nice to see him finish up in Rose's spot.

Tom Thibodeau did substitute during that timeout. He re-inserted starter Carlos Boozer. Less than two minutes later, with the score 99-87, the Bulls' championship hopes went down in a crumpled heap when Rose jumped, and his knee did not.

Thibodeau was surly and distracted during his post-game press conference. Who can blame him? He knew someone would ask why Rose was still in the game, and that's when he uttered the quote that may end up on his tombstone.

"I don't count backwards like you guys," Thibodeau said with a notable snarl in his voice. "The score was going the wrong way."

Panic is sure to ensue in Chicago, people running through the streets screaming like Ron Burgundy after Jack Black drop-kicked his dog off a bridge. Will the despair be justified?

The short answer is probably yes, but the numbers actually offer some solace.

The good news is that the Bulls' are already accustomed to playing with Rose. C.J. Watson has been very good in his place, and Lucas has provided a spark almost every time he's played. The Bulls went 18-9 in games that Rose didn't start. That .667 winning percentage translates to 55 wins in an 82-game season. That's a solid playoff team, the second seed in the East.

With Rose, Chicago was 32-7, an .821 percentage that protects to 67 wins. That's the best team in the league. See the difference?

Obviously, Chicago's margin of error has shrunk considerably. With Rose out of the lineup, the Bulls outscored opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions, compared to 10.6 with him. That's still the best efficiency margin in the league. San Antonio was second at 7.9; Miami and Oklahoma City were at 7.2. Believe or not, the Sixers were next at 5.1.

The non-Rose margin holds up even if you look at just post-All-Star numbers, during which Rose played just 32.6 percent of available minutes. Chicago put up an 8.1 efficiency margin during that span. However, during the same period, the Bulls were lapped by San Antonio's 12.8. But that's down the line ... what about Boston and Miami? What about Philadelphia and Atlanta?

Opponent   Rose  No Rose
Sixers    - 5.8  + 5.2
Hawks     - 5.3  +19.3
Celtics   +15.0  + 3.1
Heat      -16.9  +12.2

So if you're looking for some comfort, Bulls fans, cling to those numbers. Even against the Bulls' probable playoff competition, Chicago has consistently outscored opponents with Rose off the court. There's your hope. The Ewing Effect lives!

Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to dismiss those numbers. Many of the positive indicators can be traced to the Bulls' superior bench outscoring other teams' reserves. The Celtics and Heat are at full strength and judging by Miami's domination of New York Saturday, they are clearly in playoff mode. Then there is the intangible effect of having to overcome the loss of the best player on your team, the reigning MVP. The guy whose introduction raises the roof off the United Center every time Tommy Edwards yells, "From Chicaagoooo ..."

Thibodeau has his shop-worn memes, and one of them is, "We have more than enough to win with." He uttered that mantra again after Saturday's game, even after a reporter tried to steer him away from it by using those exact words in his question. You'll hear it over and over again in the next few weeks.

The Bulls do have enough to win with, to a point. They can most likely survive the Sixers. It wouldn't be shocking to see them beat the Celtics as well, but of course Boston has to deal with Atlanta. But the Heat? Here's guessing that LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh are going to have another parade down on South Beach, and this time it will be warranted.

And it's really a drag it had to happen this way.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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