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Four issues: Derrick Rose return among Bulls’ concerns down stretch

Luol Deng (L) Joakim Noah sit bench during last few minutes Chicago Bulls 86-67 loss Miami HeThursday February 21 2013.

Luol Deng (L) and Joakim Noah sit the bench during the last few minutes of the Chicago Bulls 86-67 loss to the Miami Heat Thursday February 21, 2013. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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LOS ANGELES — Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was as resolute as ever when asked about the difficulty of playing the Los Angeles Lakers on the road Sunday without Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson.

“We’ve got enough,” Thibodeau said after the Bulls lost for the fifth time in their last eight games. “You do the right things, you’ll be in position to win. We’ve got to improve.”

But even if the Bulls have enough players, the question now is whether they have enough time. During the Thibodeau era, the Bulls usually get better as they adjust to adversity. But with 18 games left in the regular season, Thibodeau’s team is treading water at best.

Even as the Bulls began to struggle a month ago, every day was a day closer to the return of Rose. Now even that is in doubt, and the Bulls face the prospect that even the best of Rose and Thibodeau might not make this season worth the anguish.

The Bulls have issues and are running out of time to solve them.

The Rose comeback

Once Rose gets on the court in a real game, hears the crowd, feels the adrenaline and realizes he’ll have to work his way back to being himself, he’ll be fine. It’s a mental hurdle but not an insurmountable one. Rose will return — this season.

The other injuries

Gibson, Hamilton and Hinrich all have underrated value to the Bulls. Gibson does the little things that keep offensive possessions alive and solidifies a defense that has allowed 36 offensive rebounds in the last two games; Hamilton is a calming veteran influence, whether he’s playing well or not; and Hinrich is a multi-role player on both ends when he’s healthy but a detriment when he’s not.

Gibson figures to be back in the next week or so. But whenever Hamilton and Hinrich return, the biggest challenge will be staying healthy.

The Deng/Noah factor

Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are doing all they can to keep the Bulls competitive but are susceptible to the heavy workload.

Deng is showing the wear and tear lately. He’s shooting 38 percent in his last 22 games after shooting 45 percent in his first 36 games. His three-point shooting is vital to the Bulls’ success: In the last three seasons, they’re 25-5 when Deng makes three or more in a game, including 8-1 when Rose is out. But he’s 2-for-18 (.111) in his last six games.

Effort and energy?

Maybe there’s only so much Thibodeau can do with all the injuries, but the current group doesn’t seem to be responding to him as well as others have.

The Bulls’ best stretch of the season — a 12-4 run in December and January — was marked by fast starts and tough first-quarter defense. During their recent rut, though, the Bulls are falling behind and not defending well. Opponents are shooting 53 percent in the first quarter in the last six games.

There’s only so much gas in their tank. The Bulls are falling behind, using everything they’ve got to recover, then falling short in the end. They’re in desperate need of some high octane to rejuvenate their season. They know where to get it, but they are running out of time.



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