COMMENTARY | At the start of the 2012-13 NBA season, The Chicago Bulls went about their business the only way they possibly could.
Rather than dwell on the absence of superstar point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls chose to ignore him, figuratively. Rose's name never came up. The Bulls were going to win with what they had, and prepare themselves for the eventual day Rose returned to action from his ACL tear.
For the first two months of the season, the Bulls did everything they could to dissuade the public from even thinking about Rose. He was rarely seen around the team, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau seemed to loathe the idea of speaking about him.
Things changed a couple of weeks ago when Rose started popping up in basketball situations. He was seen at Bulls practices, running sprints and shooting short jumpers. He came out to shoot jumpers before the Bulls played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He ran sprints on the sidelines in front of early arriving fans at the United Center before a game. He continued to work out at the United Center shooting 3-pointers as fans took photos and videos.
As all of that was happening, the Bulls were going through the weirdest set of basketball results imaginable. They lost at home to the hapless Charlotte Bobcats, who had an 18-game overall losing streak prior to coming to the United Center, then they went to Miami and embarrassed the defending champion Heat. One week later, they crushed the New York Knicks at MSG, then came home to lose to the Phoenix Suns, who had a 12-game road losing streak entering the game.
So, prior to the Bulls hosting the Atlanta Hawks Jan. 14 (in a game that ended up as a 39-point Chicago victory), Thibodeau acknowledged that his team has been holding on and doing its best without its best player.
For the first time all season, Thibodeau admitted the Bulls have been playing "short-handed".
"When you are short-handed, you have to play with great intensity all the time,'' Thibodeau said to reporters gathered outside the Bulls locker room. "That should be part of our makeup. When we do that, we are successful. When we don't, we are not as successful."
Thibodeau refused to give in to reporters' questions about why his team would beat great teams on the road and lose to poor teams at home. He constantly said the team had to look forward, not behind, while figuring out why they win when they do and lose when they do.
But he did say that the key to victory is to play as a team, repeating his mantra "five man offense, five man defense."
"It hasn't changed since the start of the season and it wouldn't change even if Derrick were here,'' he said. "You are not going to replace a player like Derrick with any one player. We understood that from the start. It has to be done collectively. The thing that separates teams is how much of a commitment you are going to make to play as a team on both ends of the floor. That is what you have to do when you are short-handed."
There, he said that word again.
After the Atlanta game, Thibodeau acknowledged that in conversation with the team, he has addressed the issue of losing to teams they should beat. He pointed out that an excuse can be made for every bad outcome.
"We spent some time analyzing that. We went through each loss and gave them what might be used as an excuse or distraction,'' Thibodeau said, citing back-to-back games, lengthy travel or missing players. "But that is NBA basketball. Readiness to play is the key to the NBA. You have to be ready to do it no matter what circumstances are in front of you."
Including missing your best player.
Thibodeau said Rose's new public appearance schedule has not had an effect on the team because it isn't anything new to them.
"He has been around the team since the start of the season,'' Thibodeau said. "You haven't seen him, but we have. That part doesn't change. Everybody knew going in what we were facing.
"When Derrick comes back, he comes back,'' he said. "But the focus right now is 'know your job, do your job.'"
Kent McDill has covered the Bulls for three different companies: for United Press International from 1985-88, for the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill., from 1988-99 and currently for NBA.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title "100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die'' published by Triumph Books.