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MUSICK: Bulls' season an Operation

Caption
(Charles Rex Arbogast (STF))
Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) loses control of the ball as San Antonio Spurs power forward Matt Bonner defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO – It’s time to update a classic board game that many of us played as kids.

Operation: Bulls edition.

Step 1: Draw a stick figure.

Step 2: Mark an “X” on the stick figure’s left foot, right foot, right ankle, left knee, right hamstring, right hip, right elbow and stomach.

All set?

You have accounted for each of the Bulls’ injuries through three-fifths of the season. A couple of months remain for the Bulls to complete the challenge by adding a left arm and a face (OK, hopefully not a face) to their ever-increasing list of injuries and illnesses.

Yet the Bulls keep winning.

It wasn’t the case Monday. The Bulls lost by 14 points to the San Antonio Spurs, who also played shorthanded because of injuries. The loss was disappointing, but hardly a crisis.

Next, the Bulls will carry a 30-21 record to Boston on Wednesday for their final game before the All-Star break. The Bulls trail the Indiana Pacers by one game in the Central Division, and a first-place finish would guarantee a top-three playoff seed.

It’s crazy, really, when you think about it.

The Bulls have collected an assortment of table scraps and created a fancy restaurant. Please pass the peanut shells. You don’t like to eat the crust? The Bulls will take it.

As Homer Simpson never said, “Mmmm. Crussst.”

Minus point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls signed veteran free agents such as Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich to bargain-priced deals to fill the void. There’s a reason why players such as Robinson and Belinelli were available. Nobody else wanted them.

As Rose focused on his comeback – he’s getting closer – the injury bug snacked on items like Luol Deng’s right hamstring, Richard Hamilton’s left foot and Joakim Noah’s right foot.

Yet, by and large, the Bulls keep winning.

Everyone has been surprised by the Bulls’ success without Rose.

Well, almost everyone.

“I’m not surprised a lick,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before Monday’s game.

Really? Not even a miniature stamp lick?

Nope. Nothing surprised him when it came to Tom Thibodeau, a one-time Spurs assistant.

“I think ‘blue collar’ is the first thing that comes to my mind,” Popovich said. “[Thibodeau is] somebody who is tough, demanding, committed. [He] knows exactly what wins, knows what has to be there, and will make sure that he gets that.”

If almost any other coach offered such praise, it would be filed in the “nice words” category.

From Popovich, it means something more.

No active coach in any of the four major sports has been in his position as long as Popovich, who is in his 17th season leading the Spurs. Popovich has guided the small-market Spurs to four NBA championships and an 888-411 regular-season record during an era when many of the league’s star players have gravitated to bright lights and big cities.

In many ways, the Spurs are the Western Conference version of the Bulls. They play hard and they stay disciplined. They battle through injuries. They have some great players, yes, but they lack the star power of teams such as the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.

Given a choice, it’s apparent that Thibodeau would prefer to follow the Spurs blueprint rather than the Heat blueprint. He described the Spurs as the “gold standard” and said he hoped that the Bulls were on the same track toward perennial success.

“They have great leadership, they have a system, and they’re so consistent,” Thibodeau said. “It’s amazing when you study them, you see what they do at home, what they do on the road, what they do with guys out. It’s a machine. …

“They’re a lot more than two players or three players.”

So are the Bulls.

But one player – Rose – represents the greatest hope for winning a seventh championship in franchise history. He’ll keep working on his recovery, and the Bulls will keep competing with an eye toward the playoffs.

“Hopefully,” Thibodeau said, “we’re playing our best basketball at the end, and we’re as healthy as possible.”

Call it a hunch, but I think they’ll keep winning.

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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