At around 6:23 p.m. Eastern time, the Bulls’ bus, which had been badly delayed by traffic, pulled into the bowels of the American Airlines Arena. One by one each player emerged wearing headphones, trying to get their mind right before the showdown that would help decide which team will lock up the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Derrick Rose emerged without a headset. Camera crews and photographers flanked the reigning MVP almost from the moment he stepped off the bus.
His lack of accessories wasn't the only thing that set him apart, though. It was the fact that he was still walking with a slight limp.
Out of all the things that happened on Thursday night, that is the most important thing as far as the Bulls are concerned. Yes, they lost the game and are now in danger of losing the No. 1 seed in the East, but none of that really matters in the grand scheme of this season. If Rose isn't able to play, or if he plays and doesn't look like the Rose who led the Bulls to 62 regular season wins last season, Tom Thibodeau's team is in trouble.
For all the talk about how much depth the Bulls have and how solid their defense can be, the focal point of any serious title run centers on Rose. At this point, nobody within the locker room is under the illusion that Rose will be 100 percent the rest of the way. The question is can he still function at a high level and lead his team to victories?
While there has been optimism that Rose would be able to return soon, and he has gone on record as saying he hoped he would be back before the regular season, privately some in the organization are concerned because they're not exactly sure when he will return. TNT's Craig Sager reported during Thursday's broadcast that Rose's ankle was taped too tight last week and that caused the fluid buildup in his ankle and foot.
"I haven't heard that," Thibodeau responded, with palpable frustration. "I don't know where this stuff comes from. We got a great medical staff I can tell you that."
That may be true, but since Rose returned to the lineup last week he has struggled. He was 1-for-13 during last Thursday's win over the Heat and was benched at the end of the game in place of C.J. Watson. He came back Sunday to help lead the Bulls to a win over the Pistons, knocking down the most critical shot of the night to send the game into overtime. But he also played 41 minutes on a bum ankle and managed to pick up a new foot injury in the process. He hasn't played since.
Rose and Thibodeau insist that the foot injury is different than the ankle injury. In the end it doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that Rose has been limping consistently since Sunday, and before then he didn't exactly look like himself. He wanted to play badly, but now the Bulls have opened themselves up to criticism for trying to play him before he was ready.
What's worse is that Thursday's loss to the Heat only reinforced how badly the Bulls need Rose in order to get to where they wanted to go. They had no rhythm offensively, and they didn't have their leader out on the floor to stand up for teammates when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took their shots.
"We didn't play well offensively. Seventy points isn't going to get it done," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "They wanted it more than us tonight, but we'll be back. We wanted it bad, but they wanted it more. That can't happen."
Even if Rose couldn't produce up to the standard he has set for himself over the past year, he still needed to be out there to give his team an emotional boost. Problem was, his ankle wouldn't allow him.
"I think we got to get better," Bulls guard Richard Hamilton said of responding to the physicality of the game. "I think we got to get better. I think that's what the playoffs is going to be about. I know what you're going to do, we know what you're going to do. So it's one of them things where we've got to get better in that. When somebody pushes their foot on the gas and push us back, we got to push even harder so we definitely got to be better at that."
But is that even in the realm of possibilities if Rose can't be on the floor?
The answer is as pronounced as Rose's limp has been over the past week -- No.