Bulls healthy for playoffs after challenging season

CHICAGO – The Bulls won 45 games without a single point from Derrick Rose.

The former MVP point guard has been sidelined all season while recovering from surgery on his left knee. Just about every other key player got banged up at some point, too.

Now, with the playoffs set to start, the Bulls are about as healthy as they’ve been all season, and they insist they just might stick around for a while after finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference. They face the fourth-seeded Nets in the first round, with Game 1 on Saturday night at Brooklyn.

“I’m really proud of this season because it wasn’t easy,” Joakim Noah said. “We’ve been through a lot. There were a lot of distractions. There was a lot of adversity. A lot of injuries. Regardless of what was thrown at us, we fought hard through it all. I’m really proud of my teammates for that. There were times when guys were looking at our team and they were laughing; there were like seven, eight guys on the bench. We never gave up. That’s something everybody should be proud of. And now, it’s playoff time. So let’s go.”

Exactly how far they can go remains to be seen.

They were able to split four games with Miami and even stop the Heat’s 27-game win streak – the second longest in NBA history. The Bulls also took all four games from New York and beat the Knicks last week after they’d won 13 in a row.

But for all the big wins, there also were some head-scratching losses to teams like Charlotte. There also was a bad stretch in late February when they got blown out by Denver, the Heat and Oklahoma City, and failed to hit the 70-point mark twice while dropping seven of 10.

Now, if the outside expectations are a bit lower than they were in recent years, that’s fine with Noah.

“Nothing wrong with being the underdog,” he said.

At this time last year, the Bulls were eyeing a deep playoff run after capturing the No. 1 seed for the second straight year and widely were viewed as the biggest threat to Miami in the Eastern Conference. All that changed when Rose tore the ACL in his left knee in a playoff-opening win over Philadelphia.

Instead of a championship, the Bulls bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. They dismantled their so-called “bench mob” in the offseason and treaded water this season, staying afloat when they could have sunk.

Not only was there the ongoing drama surrounding Rose’s recovery and whether he would return, there was a long list of injuries that constantly forced coach Tom Thibodeau to juggle the rotation. The Bulls went with 15 different starting lineups.

Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Luol Deng and Noah all missed significant time because of injuries. And even though all the key players were available Wednesday when the Bulls closed out the regular season with a 95-92 win over Washington, Noah (foot) and Gibson (knee) had their minutes limited.

It’s not clear how much time they’ll get when the playoffs start. Noah said he wasn’t in much pain but acknowledged he was out of sync in his 14 minutes Wednesday.

“During the game, he feels fine,” Thibodeau said. “I think he’s hopeful that he’ll get better and better as we go along. It’s the type of injury where he’s going to have to try to manage it as best as he can.”

He could decide to start Nazr Mohammed again after he scored a season-high 17 points against Washington and bring Noah off the bench.

“I like having the problem of trying to decide on the rotation,” Thibodeau said. “You’d like to have everyone completely healthy, but I’ll take what we have.”

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