A flying hairball with arms and legs and a nose for the basketball has helped turn around his team’s playoff series. If only another, even more vital, piece of the team were to return, the Chicago Bulls might really be onto something.
Three games into their first-round series against the Nets in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls have discovered just how much of a difference Joakim Noah makes. Battling plantar fasciitis, the Bulls center has gutted through more than 25 minutes twice in the series, and each of those efforts contributed to a Chicago victory. The Nets, who looked so firmly in control after a Game 1 in which Noah was limited to 13 minutes, now appear to be in serious trouble.
Not so far away, seated on the Bulls’ bench, is the antithesis of Noah’s story. Derrick Rose has now been out for more than a year with a torn ACL, one of the most debilitating injuries in sports, but an injury that has gradually become less terrifying than it once was. Rajon Rondo, who suffered a torn ACL in late January, is expected back for training camp this fall. Iman Shumpert, whose recovery from a similar injury should have run more or less in lockstep with Rose’s, played 45 games in the regular season and both of New York’s playoff games thus far. Yes, Rose has a serious injury, but the accumulated evidence is making Chicagoan’s patience wear thin.
Ultimately, none of us know how Rose is feeling. His primary obligation, as he and his teammates have reminded outsiders, is to his own body and career. He does not want to rush back before he feels fully healthy, and his teammates say they are not pressuring him to do so. It was patently irresponsible of the Bulls to disclose months ago that doctors had cleared Rose to play, because that put the onus on the player — implying that the only thing keeping Rose from coming back was that he was soft.
Still, this is starting to look bad. Rose’s injury was more devastating initially than Noah’s, for sure. Given the choice between plantar fasciitis and a torn knee ligament, most of us would beg for a third option before begrudgingly choosing the former. But plantar fasciitis is no picnic. It is a chronic condition — which Noah has dealt with for more than three years — that causes intense pain when the tissue in the arch of the foot become inflamed. Imagine someone pulling the fibers of your foot taut whenever you flex your foot, or a thick needle plunging into the sole of your foot when you walk or run.
There is no real cure, only treatment. With the right stretching, a few customized shoe insoles and maybe the occasional acupuncture, the pain can be lessened somewhat. Noah summed it up recently when he said, simply, that plantar fasciitis “sucks.”
“I mean, you don’t want needles in your feet, right?” Noah told NBC Chicago.
Meanwhile, more than 11 months removed from knee surgery, Rose continues to sit out every game. He is not sidelined or bed-ridden. He scrimmages. He goes through what look like intense workouts before every game. He cuts, jumps and spins. He looks great, yet his teammates are hesitant to say so out of fear it might be construed as a bitter observation that he seems good to go.
Rose’s condition has sparked a debate among those who think he should be back already and those who think he deserves all the time he needs to get back to 100 percent. As there often is in such arguments, there is a hole between the two sides, where the logic lays.
Nobody expects Rose to come back and play at an MVP level. That is the flaw in the position of Rose’s defenders. This is the playoffs. No one is at full strength. If Rose sits out every game until he is 100 percent, he will never play another playoff series again, because he will never be 100 percent after an 82-game regular season. That is a mental hurdle dozens of players, much older and just as vital to their teams as Rose, overcome every postseason. But even at less than his full capacity, Rose can still help the Bulls. He can be an above-average NBA player and an improvement at point guard for Chicago.
Noah has been far less than the All-Star big man we are used to seeing. His minutes have gradually increased in the series, but he stumbled through 27 minutes in Game 3, shooting 0-for-7 and finishing with one point. At the same time, he grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots. He contributed. He gave the Bulls good minutes, doing things that Nazr Mohammed could not do on his best day, and his effort led to a win.
That is all anyone is asking of Rose: to try. If the chance of re-injury is small — which, by numerous accounts, it is — the Bulls could use a player like Rose, even if Rose is not the same player the Bulls are used to.
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