Rose's absence allows others to flourish

Day-to-day injuries are supposed to be minor, but in the case of Derrick Rose and his bad back, it means this: The Chicago Bulls have no idea how bad it is, or when he'll be back.

The Bulls' gameplan is to play it down, even saying in the middle of each day that they don't know if he'll play that night. Maybe. He's close. They said it again Thursday after the team shootaround, when Rose was able only to shoot free throws and watch the team "a little bit."

No pain, he proclaimed. No pain, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. Rose is day to day. But Rose also admits that he was unable even to run.

Sorry, Chicago fans, but you're going to have to take this on faith.

That's not easy, especially in this town, where annual faith in the Cubs has meant an annual kick in the gut, or worse. The Chicago Bears were serious Super Bowl contenders with quarterback Jay Cutler this year. Then, he got hurt.

One injury and the year was over. So the city moved on to the Bulls, who are based around one guy. And I can say this from experience: Doctors simply don't know when a back will heal. It's a mystery. The Bulls say Rose's problem isn't "structural," whatever that means.

"We know we're not getting where we want to get," center Joakim Noah said, "without that guy."

That's obvious. The question is whether the Bulls can win a championship even with that guy. Unlike the Bears, the Bulls have continued to win. They beat Boston 89-80 on Thursday night and have the best record in the NBA at 25-7.

Somehow, the Bulls don't seem to generate talk. The craze is about Linsanity, and LeBron and Kobe. But the truth is that the Bulls and the Miami Heat are far better than any other team in the Eastern Conference. So the Heat, who crushed the Bulls in the conference finals last year, are already the entire measuring stick for the Bulls.

Even if nobody is talking about them, the Bulls are an amazing story. No contending team has been such a mess from injuries. They have played just 12 home games. Yet they still have the best record.

How are they doing this? After being overlooked for a head coaching job, any head coaching job, for years, Thibodeau has become the best coach at getting players to reach their potential. On top of that, the Bulls are solidly constructed, deep at every position.

Rose is out? They go to C.J. Watson, who could start for plenty of teams. After him, they have John Lucas, who scored 25 points against Washington. How many third-string point guards can do that?

Of course, there is nothing sexy about a team with a good bench. And Boston coach Doc Rivers said that while depth is much more important than usual in this cram-packed, 66-game schedule, it won't matter in the playoffs when teams get to rest between games.

We measure things by stars in this league. And a healthy Rose, first-time All-Star Luol Deng and Noah do not add up to James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

But there has to be more to it than that. Last year was a huge leap for the Bulls, reaching the conference finals. Now they have settled in as a contender.

They needed a shooting guard and added veteran Rip Hamilton, who has hardly been able to play all season. But have faith. He'll be fine. At this point, the Bulls are just being patient with him, making him rest his sore groin.

The goofy schedule -- a result of the labor standoff -- is the added variable this year, already leading to so many injuries around the league. Players showed up out of shape and immediately went into the rushed season.

Thibodeau, despite his preference, has been patient. He can see that the Bulls don't need to worry much about the regular season. The NBA is short on good teams and loaded with bad ones. The Bulls can pile up wins while getting players healthy for the postseason.

"I keep telling (Rose), you have just got to be smart," Deng said. "Do not come back until you're 100 percent."

Deng has missed seven games, too, with a sore wrist.

The faith for Chicagoans, though, is also in the intangibles. How much did they learn from losing to the Heat last year? How much did Rose learn?

He blamed himself, and he had tough workouts in the offseason. Maybe he overdid it. But the point is, if Rose is the champion we think he is, then he is going to figure this out. Michael Jordan had to figure it out, too.

Faith is not easy around here. When Dwight Howard said he would love to play with Rose, the question was, and still is, whether it makes sense to trade Noah, Deng, a first-round pick and probably another player to get the best center in the league.

It does not. This is the team the Bulls assembled for the run, and you don't break it up before giving it a chance to grow into the job.

In the Eastern finals last year, the Heat kept trapping Rose and forcing someone else to score. No one could. Then, Rose came back this year seemingly thinking the problem had been him. It's noble to blame yourself, but Rose took over the team more than before. And that didn't help to find another scorer for this year's potential best-of-seven series against Miami.

So assuming Rose's back does heal, it might turn out that his injury will have benefits. The Bulls have had to find ways to win without him. Suddenly, Noah, awful the first 15 games of the season, is playing well. He had 16 rebounds Thursday. And Deng is having his best season. He dominated the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points.

Is he looking to score more in crunch time?

"No," Deng said. "We just run the same offense, move the ball well and find spots to make plays."

The Bulls still aren't ready to beat Miami. But they are growing. And their depth is buying them time. The learning process, much like Rose's back, is day to day, which means there are no guarantees. You have to take it on faith.