INDIANAPOLIS--Just because the Bulls are out of the playoffs doesn't mean they're not a team on the minds of their rivals. Across the entire NBA, players felt sympathy for Chicago after Derrick Rose's devastating, season-ending torn left ACL injury at the end Game 1 of the Bulls' first-round playoff opener against Philadelphia, ultimately resulting in the top-seeded Bulls falling to the 76ers and Rose undergoing surgery, which will require him to miss between eight months to a year of action as he rehabilitates.
The team the Bulls eliminated from last year's playoffs, Indiana, and the team the Bulls were defeated by in the postseason, Miami, are perhaps the Bulls' biggest rivals and coincidentally, are currently locked into a second-round battle of their own, in which the Pacers hold a 2-1 series lead over the Heat, following Thursday night's win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. While both squads are focused on the task at hand, the NBA is a brotherhood of sorts and rivalries aside, Rose is one of the most respected players in the league, so concern was expressed for both his future and there was empathy for the Bulls as a whole, in terms of their postseason fate, though the consensus was that the team will bounce back from Rose's injury and still be competitive through his prolonged absence next season.
"That misfortune was big," Pacers veteran swingman Dahntay Jones told CSNChicago.com. "You have one of the most dynamic players in the NBA going down and thats hard for them to rebound from and it was big for that series, but theyll find a way to get it together and be the force that they are."
Chimed in power forward David West: "They were the top team, basically in the NBA. Top one or two all year and you know the type of athlete and game that D-Rose has, and again, its hard sometimes to overcome that situation when you have one of the top-five guys in the world go out, especially in a playoff series, where guys can, especially defensively, lock in. Its just unfortunate that they got dealt that blow."
Heat power forward Udonis Haslem took a different tact, giving Philadelphia the benefit of the doubt, but also throwing in the fact that fellow University of Florida product Joakim Noah was also injured, suffering a severe ankle sprain in Game 3 of the first-round series.
"If Derrick was healthy, then they still would have had to get by the Sixers. Whos to say they would have still gotten by the Sixers, even if he was healthy?" wondered Haslem, whose Heat are dealing with a similar situation with All-Star Chris Bosh on the shelf after being hurt earlier in the series with the Pacers. "They also lost Noah in the playoffs, which hurt, so it could be a different series. Maybe if Noah doesn't get hurt, they still win that series."
Regardless, both teams, while not counting their eggs before they hatched, knew when the playoff seedings were set, the Bulls were a potential opponent. Indiana saw it as an opportunity to avenge last spring's postseason loss, while Miami viewed the matchup as a continuation of what has become a fierce rivalry.
"Nobody thought Derrick Rose was going to go down and we took it one series at a time, no matter who our opponent was, but in the back of our mind, yeah, we still have our memories of Chicago," Pacers swingman Paul George, who guarded Rose for much of last year's first-round series, told CSNChicago.com. "Theyre always going to be a rival for us. It just seems that thats always how it makes out to be in the regular season and when you play them in the postseason, so itll be a rivalry."
Added Haslem: "You never know, but I think everybody was anticipating us to match up with the Bulls, but right now, were in a fight with the Pacers and theyre home, so its not the situation everybody envisioned."
Some observers have already written off the Bulls next season, looking at it as a semi-rebuilding year without Rose and potentially fellow All-Star Luol Deng to begin the campaign, as well as tough offseason decisions with free agents C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, not to mention backup center Omer Asik, a restricted free agent. But based on Rose's underrated supporting cast, the team's track record without him in the lineup during the regular season and Tom Thibodeau's coaching acumen, their foes don't believe it's a foregone conclusion that there will be as much slippage as one might expect.
"Its hard to say. Theyre not a bad team without him. They played a lot of this year without D-Rose," Heat point guard Mario Chalmers, who's matched up with Rose since college, when his Kansas team topped Rose's Memphis Tigers in the NCAA national-championship game, told CSNChicago.com. "I still think they can contend for a title. Theyre still a great team. They have good players over there and they have a good coach, so its up to them."
Echoed Haslem: "Theyll figure it out. One thing that I know about Thibodeau, just by playing against him, is that hes a hell of a coach and hes going to have his guys prepared, and play well without him throughout the regular season."
NBA players aren't doctors, so their medical opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, but other than trained professionals in that field, they know better than anyone else how their peers might be able to recover from injuries that they themselves have endured. West is clearly a different type of player than Rose--the former All-Star is regarded as one of the better players at his position in the game, but certainly isn't a high-flying athlete--but he went through an excruciatingly long recovery process after tearing his own left ACL late last season and while he admitted that he only "turned the corner a month or so ago," he believes Rose will get through it, as it's more mind over matter, or even just hard work and heart--pointing to his chest for emphasis--something he believes Rose has plenty of.
"Well, I think as long as you dont get down on yourself, as long as you dont allow people around you to feel sorry for you, just understand that its just a bump in the road and you can get over it. Obviously the surgery and the rehab is tough. I never even wore a knee brace. Thats how far the rehab and things like that have come and hes got a good work ethic, so hell be fine. Hell get through it and hell return to himself. When youre built differently, in terms of insidenot so much physicallyyou can get through stuff like that."
So, while Chicago is still in an extended state of mourning for its favorite native son, not only do even the Bulls' biggest rivals not feel sorry for the team--though they do empathize with how the Bulls' playoff fate transpired, from a purely competitive aspect--they believe the long-lasting effects to the Bulls' run as a contender will be minimal. However, don't expect those feelings of kinship to last through next spring.