It's fitting that a final month of the regular season which really hasn't meant much to the Bulls ends tonight with a meaningless game against the Cavaliers.
Other than the best record in the NBA battle with the Spurs, there is absolutely nothing on the line tonight for the Bulls. They recently wrapped up home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. The only drama left heading into the last of this season's many back-to-backs was whether the 76ers or Knicks would be the eighth seed and thus the Bulls' first-round opponent.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, who has irked some Bulls fans by playing his stars too much at times this season, would surely rest his starters last night at Indianapolis and again tonight with nothing on the line, right? Unfortunately it's not quite that simple for one Bull — and it's the Bull that matters most.
Before Wednesday, defending MVP Derrick Rose had played 136 minutes and 52 seconds since March 12. That's less than three full games. A strained groin forced him to miss 12 straight games during that stretch, and a bad tape job on his ankle, apparently, was the cause of him more recently sitting out three straight. Injuries had, before Wednesday, caused Rose to miss 26 of Chicago's 64 games.
Whether injuries are fully the cause or not, Rose's shooting numbers are down across the board. He entered the Pacers game averaging 22.2 points per game while making 43.7 percent of his field goals, 31.6 percent of his three-pointers and 80.9 percent of his free throws. In 2010-11, Rose scored 25.0 points a game on 44.5 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent shooting from three-point land and 85.8 percent shooting from the line.
Rose's per-game averages in rebounding (3.5, down from 4.1) and steals (1.1, down from 0.9) have declined, though he has slightly improved his marks in assists (7.9, up from 7.7) and blocked shots (0.7, up from 0.6) while cutting his turnover average from 3.4 to 3.1.
More concerning is the way Rose has performed when he has been able to play lately. In over 33 minutes Sunday, Rose was limited to 11 points by the Mavericks, though he did have eight assists and just one turnover in a 93-83 win. He scored 24 points but turned the ball over seven times on April 15 at Detroit and scored 29 points with eight turnovers on April 8 at New York. Sandwiched between those efforts was a two-point, 1-for-13 debacle with the nation watching on April 12 in a home loss to the Heat.
That's it. That's all Rose had played, prior to Wednesday, all month. He also had seven DNPs to go with the 10 straight he accumulated at the end of March.
Whether or not Rose is even healthy right now is up for debate. What I don't think is debatable is that Rose is not at the level he was at when the 2011 playoff started. He's banged up and he's rusty, and he hasn't played extended minutes with his teammates for several weeks. Maybe that doesn't matter so much for the rapport between Rose and, say, Joakim Noah, but he and Rip Hamilton aren't exactly accustomed to one another.
I probably don't need to say it, but I will anyway. The Bulls are going nowhere without their one superstar on the court and playing at a high level. They have some impressive wins on their resume without him, most notably one over the Heat, but they certainly aren't winning a seven-game series over Miami without Rose.
An optimistic Bulls fan might point out that the Bulls should have two rounds for Rose to get his feet wet again before the Heat likely loom in the Eastern Conference Finals. I'd question whether they can even get that far with him struggling. It's not the first round that scares me, though some Bulls fans are downright terrified of a potential matchup with the Knicks. Boston is locked in to the No. 4 seed and will probably face the Bulls in Round 2. Trying to make one last run with their veteran core, the Celtics have played very well since late February.
A reemergence of the 2010-11 version of Rose could be a necessity for the Bulls to survive Boston, to say nothing of Miami in the East finals or of San Antonio/Oklahoma City/Memphis/Los Angeles in the round beyond that. Maybe Rose is ready to play at that level. I'd need more evidence than I've seen to believe it's likely that he will.