It has been nine months since Derrick Rose went down in the playoffs, along with any hopes the Chicago Bulls had of being crowned champions in 2012. Suddenly, their best record in the league didn’t mean anything as their star went down with a torn ACL and the Bulls lost their opening-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
But that was then. This season the Bulls have learned to play without the MVP and have put together a 30-20 record — good enough to be sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and in the middle of the playoff hunt, just waiting for the highly anticipated return of Rose.
While Rose will likely be back on the court after the All-Star break, it’s been Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer that have picked up the pieces and led this team in the first half of the season. Without Rose to drive the lane and make the seemingly impossible layup, Deng has led the way averaging 17 points a game with Boozer contributing 15. And without Rose, unlikely heroes like Jimmy Butler and even 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson have stepped up when they needed to and filled in the gaps.
The hype surrounding Rose’s return to the starting lineup is warranted, but they have proven they can win without him — even against the Miami Heat. A team that is defined by their defensive intensity, the Bulls outrebounded the Heat 48-28 when the two teams met Feb. 4. Chicago not only destroyed them on the boards, they also outhustled the Heat and simply outplayed them.
The Heat are undoubtedly one of the best teams in the league with the best player in the league, but when the Bulls get Rose back, that title could be taken from them. LeBron James is having an incredible season, even by James’ standards, and with the addition of Ray Allen to their already stacked lineup, the Heat are — and will continue to be — a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.
But the issues that plagued the Bulls last season — depending on Rose to close out games, not having a reliable second option and lacking another top-tier scorer — have been addressed. Butler has exceeded expectations and proven himself to be the go-to scorer in clutch situations, making him a nice alternative when Rose is double-teamed with the game on the line.
The Bulls didn’t just win without Rose, they individually rediscovered their roles on the team and collectively found an identity that — with the addition of the point guard after the All-Star Break — is enough to scare any team in the conference — especially the Heat.