The theory that the Bulls are better without Derrick Rose has been gaining momentum as circumstantial evidence has accumulated. It's absurd, of course. When the Bulls have been at their very best Rose has not only been on the floor but at the top of his game. What's important now is that he and his teammates return to that level before the playoffs begin.
It's all about a critical path for the Bulls now that they are all-but assured home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference Finals. Coach Tom Thibodeau's list of priorities became clear as fans streamed out of the United Center after Thursday night's 96-86 overtime victory over the Heat. A schedule that has been an enemy all season now becomes an ally.
The Bulls next three opponents have an average winning percentage of .248. The Pistons, Wizards and Bobcats provide ample opportunity for the Bulls to accomplish two objectives that will assure that they will be healthy, rested and playing at a high level when the postseason begins.
The first is obvious. Rose needs to get his timing back and his legs under him. I had a hunch heading into the game that Rose was going to do something he'd never done before. The last time he played he had eight turnovers and missed to clutch free throws that cost his team a win. He wanted to play Tuesday night but the decision was made for him.
I expected a memorable performance but wouldn't have guessed he would be held to a career-low two points and find himself on the bench during overtime.
It's never been more obvious that Rose is out sync. His shots aren't falling and he's playing tentative, which may be the result of him not having his usual extraordinary lift because of groin and ankle injuries. He needs time to round himself into shape and create synergy with his teammates. The next three games provide ample opportunity.
"It's been a hard year for him, a hard year," Kyle Korver said. "You're 23 years old, you were MVP last year, you come in and get four or five different injuries in a crazy season with all these games. It says a lot about him and his character.
"There's not a lot of superstars who can take the criticism that he gets and play the minutes that he does and still keep [his] head. He's a really humble guy, he's all about winning and he doesn't care -- obviously, he has the ball most the time, he's the MVP, a great player -- but if someone else is open, he's going to pass the ball. He's a great guy, man."
He and Rip Hamilton need time to develop into the kind of one-two punch that can help make sure the Bulls are as successful against the Heat in the postseason as they have been in their past two wins. About 30 minutes a game for the next three games should do the trick. Then Thibodeau can unleash the hounds when the Bulls play in Miami on Thursday.
"My mind was thinking something that my body couldn't do," Rose said after Thursday's game. "I've never had a problem getting my rhythm back. I should get it back soon."
The second priority should be getting Luol Deng some much-needed rest. The forward played more than 42 minutes against the Heat and his now averaging a league-leading 39.4 minutes per game despite having a torn ligament in his left wrist.
Jimmy Butler has been effective guarding LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony this season and could be of use as a spot defender in the playoffs, which is why getting the rookie on the floor during the final seven games should not only give Deng a blow but prepare him for his postseason assignment.
Thibodeau wants to win every game regardless of the circumstances, and the philosophy has served his team well over the past two years. The schedule now allows him to continue accomplishing his short-term goals while taking a longer view that can help the Bulls maintain the momentum gained in one of their most unlikely wins of the season.
"It was a fun game [Thursday night] but it was just a game," Korver said.