Bulls coming for you, Miami - NBC Sports

Bulls coming for you, Miami
With Rose's return imminent, Chicago has most to gain in 2nd half of season
AP
Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose works out before a game in Indiana.ÿRose is recovering from torn ligaments in his left knee, but could be back by February.
January 8, 2013, 12:01 am

So glance at the NBA leaders in minutes played, and there at the top - the very top - are Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.

Then glance at the standings, and there, lurking not so far off the pace of the Knicks, Hawks and Pacers are Thibodeau's Bulls.

A team that has defeated the Knicks twice and the Heat once, ready to pounce.

Because no team in the NBA faces a potential upgrade over the second half of the season like Thibodeau's Bulls.

Derrick Rose is coming. By now that's a given. He traveled with the Bulls during their just-completed trip to Orlando and Miami. He's practicing, albeit without full contact yet; he's poised.

His return from his gruesome playoff knee injury could be in February, possibly after the All-Star break. It could be in March.

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The news gets out when Thibodeau wants it out. And he may not want it out until Rose just happens to show up on the active rosters required to the scorers' table 60 minutes prior to tip-off.

For now, there is no tip-off. Asking Thibodeau for an injury update on Rose is like asking Belichick for an injury report on a Monday - the answer isn't much of one.

"He's moving along," Thibodeau grudgingly offered. "This is the next step. So he's doing more and more, in terms of practicing with the team, but he still has to focus on his rehab. The team has to focus on improvement and our opponent. So it's just the next step in his progression."

Yet because the questions continue to be asked, and because Rose largely has been placed off-limits, his presence in Orlando and Miami a shadowy one, Thibodeau has had to say something.

What he's saying is that his team is not awaiting a savior, that Rose will fit back into what presently is being offered and that there is no Plan B, no strategy package waiting to be opened upon his return.

"We haven't changed the way we're going to play," he told NBCSports.com. "For us, it's going to be our defense, our rebounding, taking care of the ball, playing inside-out, sharing the ball. Now, whenever your players can change, whether it's through injury, trade, free agency, whatever it might be, what your players' strengths are, you want to play to those strengths and cover up your weaknesses. But overall, philosophically we don't want to change.

"We want to play the same way from the start of the season to the end of the season."

But they won't. And the rest of the league knows that.

At worst, Rose will return as a jump shooter, a player easing his way back. But even last season, he made significant strides in that respect. He now has to be accounted for all the way to the arc.

As something better, he will offer the Bulls the type of penetrating presence they so lack, instead of merely relying on jumpers and the bullish follow-up play of Noah.

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The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday - following a day-long lockdown and manhunt - sports returned to Boston over the weekend.

And that's the rub, because of Peterson and because of Strasburg, the possibilities are infinite. No two injuries are alike, something Thibodeau is more than willing to share.

The difference this season is that with Kirk Hinrich alongside, Rose will return as something less than a full-time ballhandler. That burden will be eased.

"We know that eventually when Derrick comes back, that they've played well together in the past," Thibodeau said.

That, beyond the luxury-tax implications, is among the reasons the Bulls also are looking to move Rip Hamilton, so Hinrich-Rose can present a two-guard front.

Last season, we never got to see Bulls-Heat in the playoffs because of Rose's first-round departure.

But this season, we've seen the oversized Bulls beat down the Heat, with Noah exiting by saying, "I don't think that small ball is going to work against us."

Such hardly is arrogance when the final rebounding numbers are 48-28 in the Bulls' favor, including 19-4 on the offensive glass.

And twice we've seen the Bulls - the Rose-less Bulls - dominate the Knicks.

At a time when the Knicks look like they've already peaked, when Frank Vogel has maximized the possibilities in Indiana, when the Hawks can do nothing more than count on Josh Smith, and when the Celtics are ceasing to be relevant, the Bulls are in position to play the type of card that no other team in the conference, or in the league, for that matter, can pull from their deck.

In football, Peterson showed it can be done, from debilitated to dynamic in mere months.

It ultimately ended in failure for Peterson because he had nothing else alongside, left to ponder the possibilities had there been Ponder.

But Rose would be returning alongside arguably the best center in the Eastern Conference, alongside the supporting front line of Deng and Carlos Boozer, and with a coach that, rest assured, has a Rose-centric Plan B tucked inside his suit coat pocket.

The Bulls already have been very good at times this season.

Unlike the Heat's other challengers in the East, they still have an opportunity to be great.

Derrick Rose is back traveling with Chicago.

Soon the Bulls could be on the move toward doing what few others have done this season in the Eastern Conference: capturing the Heat's attention, perhaps their undivided attention.

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Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.http://www.sun-sentinel.com/sports/ You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

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