BOSTON – The Chicago Bulls have a problem. Their Rose has wilted. And until he springs back to life, the NBA's best team could be in trouble.
Bothered again by a nagging back injury, Derrick Rose sat out his second straight game Sunday afternoon in Boston, giving Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo the perfect opportunity to shine. And did Rondo ever take advantage of Rose's absence.
The sixth-year guard abused Chicago backups C.J. Watson and John Lucas III, tied a career high with 32 points and added 10 rebounds and 15 assists -- the ninth triple-double of his career -- as he led the Celtics to a 95-91 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls.
"He just did it all tonight, and it was great to watch," Celtics forward Paul Pierce said of Rondo, who struggled in a loss to Toronto on Friday, scoring just five points on 2-of-10 shooting. "All great players, when they don't play well, they have a sense of when to step up, and he had that sense today."
The loss wasn't the end of the world for Chicago, which still has the league's best record at 23-7, but it underlined just how vulnerable the Bulls can be when Rose is out -- a situation the team may have to get used to for the foreseeable future.
Rose said he plans on visiting a specialist Monday when the team returns to Chicago. Depending on the prognosis, he could be back on the court as soon as Tuesday, when the Bulls host the Sacramento Kings. If the news isn't good, however, he could be out much longer.
If anything, it seems like the most likely news will be that there's no news at all -- especially given Rose's history of back problems.
Similar spasms bothered him in high school during his senior season at Chicago's Simeon Academy, and eventually they just went away. Unfortunately, this round of back pain has come with a prolonged recovery time -- something a younger Rose wasn't impacted by.
"I remember in high school, I didn't get treatment or anything," Rose said. "I just took a couple days off, and I was able to play and I didn't feel it. Hopefully it's the same thing."
Whether this situation is or isn't the same, the Bulls should go out of their way to play it safe. They've already done enough damage as it is by letting their leader try to tough it out.
Rose's back pain started during a loss to Miami on Jan. 29, at the beginning of Chicago's nine-game road trip. He played through it for the next four games, but as the trip wore on, his back wore out.
Rose logged limited minutes in the Bulls' wins over New Jersey and New Orleans earlier this week -- playing just 11 minutes in the 108-87 win over the Nets on Monday and just 22 minutes in Wednesday's 23-point rout of the Hornets.
By Friday, the pain was too much to take, and Rose sat out Chicago's 95-64 pounding of the Bobcats.
"I just played through it, and the more I played through it, it tended to get worse after every game," Rose said. "I could barely walk. Hopefully I get treatment and it goes away or calms down, then I'll be able to play. If not, I'll just take my time."
To be clear, no one is saying Rose is going to be on the shelf long term, and I'd expect to see him back in action sooner than later. Rose himself said he could wake up tomorrow and feel fine.
But there's also the chance that he won't -- that his bothersome back will be a battle he's forced to fight all season long. So the Bulls' best move is to exercise extreme caution and give him all the time he needs to get back to 100 percent.
"You're always concerned," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We're hopeful that it gets cleared up shortly, but we want to make sure. Backs are tricky."
And for that reason -- the volatility and unpredictability of an achy back -- Rose shouldn't step on a court, lace up his sneakers or test out a spin move until the pain is gone, on-court results be damned.
Watson scored 22 points in Rose's absence Sunday, but he did it on a disappointing 8-for-23 shooting. Lucas wasn't any better, chipping in eight points and making just three of his nine shots.
As Sunday's loss unfolded, you couldn't help but think that it was the type of game that would have been a blowout in Chicago's favor had Rose been playing.
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah kept the Bulls in it -- despite Watson's best efforts to play them out of it -- but in the end, Rondo did a masterful job of exposing just how much Chicago is lacking at the point-guard position with Rose on the bench.
"It's a solid game," Rose said of Rondo. "He did what he's supposed to do. He's a great guard, one of the elite guards in the NBA. He played well, leading the team, passing the ball great, scoring the ball, rebounding the ball."
In other words, he was everything Chicago's point guards weren't. But then, Rose gives Watson and Lucas a lot to live up to.
"He's a very dynamic player, and there's not one area of the game that he's not great at," Thibodeau said of Rose. "He's an offense unto himself, he's great at pushing the ball, he can break defenses down, he makes plays, he shoots the 3, his defense is vastly improved, he's a great leader day in and day out."
It can't be overstated that the Bulls are still a good team, even without their best player. After all, they're 5-2 with Rose out of the lineup. They're just not a championship team when he's not at his best.
Rose is Chicago's heart. He's the motor that makes that team go. He's unquestionably the Bulls' leader, and they go as he goes -- which is to say they're not going anywhere without him.
"Not being healthy is definitely getting to me," Rose said. "But I've just got to stay positive and hope for the best."
And that's probably the best move for Rose, because his team's future depends on it.
The Bulls finished their road trip 6-3, but as much as losing Rose -- and losing games -- hurts in the short term, it'll hurt even more to lose in the playoffs, which is exactly what will happen if Rose isn't 100 percent come May.
"You start out with the end in mind," Thibodeau said. "You want to make sure you're playing your best basketball at the end of the season, and you want to be as healthy as possible."
The goal is winning an NBA title. If that comes at the expense of a few losses in February, that's a tradeoff Thibodeau -- and Rose -- will gladly take.
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