- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- A rainy Sunday brought two new/old Bulls to the Berto Center, and the familiar tandem of Jannero Pargo and John Lucas III could be an unlikely key to the Bulls' making a run to the Eastern Conference finals and beyond.
No, I'm not still celebrating St. Patrick's Day. I'm completely sober.
The Bulls are one win shy of 50, and are the source of nightmares for the Celtics and the Heat coaching staffs. Despite early and enduring skepticism, Chicago has proved time and time again it can compete with any team in the NBA.
But health could make the difference between a second-round out and a parade in the Loop. It's always about health, isn't it?
The prevailing question mark that punctuates any question about the Bulls' playoffs chances is Carlos Boozer. He should tattoo one in the free space on his chiseled canvas. After practicing full-bore Sunday, Boozer is ready to return from a lingering ankle sprain, and his presence will take a lot of pressure off Derrick Rose to hurtle through defenders 25 times a night.
The Bulls have learned to play without Boozer, but if Rose wears down, or heaven forbid goes down, it's all over.
Forget resting Rose during games, because that's not going to happen. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau noted last week that when he was coaching on Boston's championship team, Doc Rivers never took the foot off the pedal. I'm sure we'll see the same philosophy play out here through the next month.
Enter Pargo and Lucas, who will allow Thibodeau to continue running spirited practices for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. This is the kind of move that gets ignored, especially when everyone starts talking about chemistry or other ephemeral benefits of bringing in nice guys. The Bulls' locker room is already a good place. But practice depth isn't something that should be overlooked.
Thibodeau is a coach's coach when it comes to preparation, and there is no doubt the Bulls' remarkable season has been built behind the blinds at the Berto.
Thibodeau gave the Bulls a customary off day Saturday following Friday's loss at Indiana, but he ran a practice that neared the two-hour mark Sunday. Both Pargo and Lucas participated.
"We want to practice down the stretch, and how we pace the team is real important," Thibodeau said. "They're both smart guys who pick things up quickly, and I think they'll bring a lot to practice."
For sure, Rose could use a break here and there, because he will continue to play the minutes expected of an All-Star point guard and fulfill the expectations of a shoe spokesman and budding commercial star. He spent his off day filming an adidas commercial for five hours.
Rose is coming off a 42-point game, tying his career high set earlier this season, but his shooting percentage is down a tad this month, and it sits at 43.8 percent for the season.
In 10 games in March, he's shooting 39.6 percent, which if that held would be his lowest monthly percentage of the season. In that span, Rose has shot below 40 percent five times, including that one spurt in which he missed 19 straight 3-pointers. (Conversely, he hit five 3s in a win over the Jazz.) But Rose doesn't want to talk about his struggles (well, shooting-wise, at least) because the Bulls are 8-2 this month.
"It's nothing," he said. "You're going to miss some; you're going to hit some. I know my confidence is not going to change. My biggest thing is just winning. As long as we're winning, I don't care how bad I shoot, how good I shoot. As long as I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."
Rose has received a lot of praise for improving his jump shot, and he is legitimately dangerous from 3-point range now. But in the last month and a half, he's shooting around 25 percent, lowering his season percentage to 32.8.
So there is some statistical validation to the school of thought that carrying the MVP-type load has worn down the 22-year-old Rose. I can't totally buy in, because he's finding ways to score, and frankly, I'd rather Rose have the ball in his hands than any other player on the team.
But there's no question he's hurting. He showed the visible bumps and bruises to reporters in Indianapolis, and he was disconsolate after the loss, despite his late-game heroics to send it into overtime.
"It's tough," he said Sunday, flashing a knowing smile. "Definitely tough. But I'm loving it, man. Every game is a clutch game, everybody is playing for something and everybody's playing hard. Right now, we've got to try and get as many wins as possible."
And that's the ultimate truth. Boston can afford to rest its aging veterans, because Rivers knows, and they know, what it takes to win in the postseason.
Going into the Bulls' game against Sacramento on Monday, Chicago and Boston were tied for the Eastern Conference lead and that No. 1 seed is more valuable than ever with Miami sitting at the No. 3 spot.
So there is no letup coming, and the Bulls can't afford to rest Rose, even if he would allow it. He's not injured, no body part needs time to heal.
Just by playing his customary 37 minutes a night, Rose is living up to his MVP promise from training camp. Against Indiana, he missed 16 of his 27 shots, but he still hit 18 of 21 free throws. Defensively, he's been better than advertised. 82games.com notes that he's outscoring opposing point guards, 31 to 17.2, per 48 minutes.
"He drives the ball, he's going to get hit," Thibodeau said. "He gets to the line. Every player in the league, every primary scorer, every player who's logged minutes, they're going to get nicked up. This is all part of it. This is why you prepare yourself all summer and all season with your lifting and your conditioning so you can handle the grind of the season and the playoffs."
Rose spent his free part of the summer doing just that, working out with Los Angeles-based trainer Rob McClanaghan, Rose's version of Tim Grover, to improve his jumper and stay in shape. His MVP prediction didn't come from his imagination. He came in knowing he was a better shooter and a better player.
So, defenses have kept poking at him to expose a weakness. The Wizards played a zone for most of the game last week and everyone is trapping or double-teaming Rose.
Getting Boozer back after a five-game absence is crucial. It should help Rose get some easier looks because no other Bull commands a double team.
"When a guy like that comes back, you've got to look at him on the court," Rose said. "People are going to double-team him and it's going to open everyone up. Joakim [Noah] should be getting a lot of tip-ins and rebounds."
When asked what he needs to tune up before the playoffs, Rose pointed only to his aggressiveness, or occasional lack thereof. And he's not only talking about scoring. He needs to be going 70 mph at all times.
"Even with me just pushing the ball up the court, pushing it, making them get back on their heels and getting people open," he said.
Rose knows he needs to dictate the pace, and that is a welcome metaphor for the Bulls. For a team with championship aspirations, there is no time to rest, only time to push.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.