For once, the news around the Bulls was generally good and the controversy was left pretty much at a minimum.
Sure, the talk about minutes limits and untimely substitutions isn’t going away anytime soon, but Tuesday was probably one of the better days the team has had over the last month. Not only did Jimmy Butler (left elbow) and Taj Gibson (left ankle) practice fully, but coach Tom Thibodeau said Derrick Rose is “on schedule, maybe even slightly ahead” as he recovers from the Feb. 27 surgery on the torn meniscus in his right knee that left him on a 4-to-6 week timetable to return.
“It’s good, steady progress,” Thibodeau said. “As long as he’s able to keep moving forward like this I think it’s a real good sign.”
The Bulls need some good signs. They’ve lost five of their last six and entered play Tuesday in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, 2 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the lead in the Central Division. The rumblings about usage and who wants players on the floor for how much flared up after Sunday’s loss in Oklahoma City when Joakim Noah only played six fourth-quarter minutes.
As for the minutes, Thibodeau explained how Noah would ideally be lifted around the same time but issues like foul trouble, matchups, long stretches without whistles or a short bench could keep him on the floor longer early in the game. That then could factor into Noah’s usage late, like it did Sunday.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. I tried to do the best I could all year with it,” Thibodeau said of Noah, who didn’t speak to reporters Tuesday. “I think he’s averaging less than 31 minutes a game so… but we’re going to adhere to what we’re asked to do.”
That said, Rose, Butler and Gibson are making progress. Rose has moved onto the next phase of his rehab and did non-contact activities during practice, while Butler and Gibson’s returns are coming close.
“It’s good, it’s good to see everybody out there trying to get back as soon as possible,” Butler said. “But I think some people are still a few days behind and whenever their body gets back to it they’ll be back at it.”
When everybody’s back it means the Bulls would have a chance to keep some people fresh over the last part of the season. They could also have the three key pieces ready to go before the playoffs start in mid-April, something which could be valuable in the first round.
See, good news.
“It’s critical for us. There’s 14 games left,” Thibodeau said. “You want to build some continuity and it would be good to have everyone out there. Certainly, all three guys … you look at Jimmy, Derrick and Taj, they’re critical to our team. When we have those guys it gives us good depth.”
That depth – whenever it arrives – will help a team that’s had to stretch itself without three players. Butler said “you can tell” some of his Bulls teammates are tired, something that could get better when the team is theoretically at full strength.
“But I think that’s part of the league. It’s a learning curve for everybody,” said Butler, who added it’s possible he could play later this week. “You get a lot of young guys that are out there playing. They’re not used to it down the stretch. Every possession’s important now, especially going into the playoffs.”
The sooner everybody’s back the sooner that players get back into their roles. So, could Butler or Gibson be back this week?
“I’m hopeful,” Thibodeau said, “but I don’t want to speak until I’m told.”