- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Nobody, including Joakim Noah's grandfather from Cameroon, questions Derrick Rose's will to win. We've seen it enough times, and if we haven't, we've seen enough replays to remind us that as a closer, he's right there with Mariano Rivera.
But as Rose hobbled out of the gym in his shower shoes Monday -- albeit with little visible swelling in his sprained left ankle after sitting out of practice -- you had to wonder what kind of a team the Bulls will be Tuesday night in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers, or in any game that Rose is not 100 percent.
We saw what happened in Saturday's Game 4 loss in Indianapolis. Not just the loss, but the fact that Rose clearly was struggling more on his jump shot without two sturdy legs under him, and was also obviously hesitant to drive the lane with the game on the line.
It was unselfish, to be sure, for the Bulls' young floor leader to look for an open teammate. Trouble was, the ball eventually landed in the hands of Carlos Boozer, and we all know how that worked out.
This was the fear at the start of the postseason by those of us given to pessimism and paranoid thought. Not necessarily that Boozer would be hoisting up 3-point attempts with the Bulls trailing and seconds ticking away, but that Rose would get roughed up, and heaven forbid, knocked out of a game or even worn down under the stress of taking too much upon himself. And here we are, still in the first round as that scenario plays out.
So determined is Rose to perform at his best, that the renowned needle-hater revealed Monday with barely a blink that he will receive a pain-killing injection before the game.
"It's not broke, so I'm definitely going to be playing," he said in that way that makes every Bulls fan want to give him a big hug, then pack him up in cotton.
His teammates obviously love him as well.
"In the NBA these days, it's really popular to milk your injuries and let everybody know you're hurt and let everybody know how much pain you're playing in," said Kyle Korver, who will draw more bodies Tuesday than the Oak Street beach in July.
"That's not Derrick at all. He's tough. If he's hurt, he really is hurt. He's got a huge heart. He's shown it all year in his play and his person. Hopefully, he'll be fine."
But neither love nor hope will carry the Bulls past the pesky Pacers and their balanced attack.
There have been some encouraging signs, Noah's 21 point and 14 rebounds in Game 4 among them.
"I'm feeling better every day," he said, reminding us that he, too, is still recovering from an ouchy ankle.
"I'm feeling healthier and healthier. I'm not taking it for granted. I'm loving this, I'm loving playing in the playoffs. It's a great environment. And [Tuesday], I've got my grandfather coming all the way from Africa to see me play. He's never seen me play an NBA game, so that's really exciting. It'll be fun, and hopefully he'll enjoy it."
He will enjoy it all the more if his grandson and his grandson's teammates take care of the basketball, play more aggressively on defense and act like they know each other on offense. Oh yeah, and rebound like they did in the first two games of the series.
"We've got to put a body on somebody and then go fight for the ball," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, sounding more than a little bit impatient. "We have to focus better. We can't rely on one or two guys to do all the rebounding, we have to be a gang-rebounding team."
Typically, Rose can be a big help there as well, grabbing six and eight boards in Games 1 and 2, respectively. Of course, he will never go into a shell as his 10 assists in Game 4 demonstrated. And Korver said the team learned "a bunch of new plays" Monday, presumably at least a few of those designed to allow the guy with the high socks shooting 56 percent from the field and 80 from 3-point range in the series to get a few more open looks.
Rose said he is comfortable altering his game if he must.
"I know that I have my teammates, just like at the end of [Saturday's] game," he said. "I really didn't have to score for us to fight our way back into the game. As long we win the game, I'm fine."
But alas, the Bulls did not win that game. And Tuesday, despite the high hopes attached to The Shot -- "It works," said Noah of the hypodermic, "I promise you that." -- they may well find themselves in the same position.
To that end, the slightly scratchy Thibodeau can only do and say so much.
"This is the playoffs," he said. "Everything is hard. You've got to earn it. You can't be afraid of the challenge, just meet everything head on. That's what you have to do."
At least we got that cleared up.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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