CHICAGO -- The injury bug is among the toughest, most excruciating things to predict in sports.
Everyone knows it's coming, and nobody knows when it will strike.
It bit the Chicago Bulls last season, taking down Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer for large chunks of the schedule. But the Bulls still managed to fight back, and advance all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.
Luol Deng played every game last season, and Derrick Rose only missed one. Given the bug's historically bad bite, the Bulls came away relatively unscathed. In theory, that's the only thing that could truly derail the upcoming Bulls' season. If Rose or Deng were to go down, specifically, Rose, the Bulls are in trouble. It's not that they wouldn't be able to survive without him, (C.J. Watson would still help lead the Bulls to the playoffs if everyone else stayed healthy) it's that the Bulls would have no chance to win a title this season without Rose.
In so many ways, the only thing that could truly stop the Bulls this season is if Rose goes down. The reality is that the Bulls have every key player coming back, plus Rip Hamilton (Sure, they'll miss Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, but neither were irreplaceable.) They are probably the deepest team in the league and seem to really enjoy playing with one another They have proven they can beat pretty much everybody else aside from Miami. The only team in the Eastern Conference aside from the Heat who would truly have a chance to knock them off in a seven-game series is the Boston Celtics.
How could this happen?
The Celtics have a veteran team full of guys who view this season as possibly their last opportunity to win a title. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce want to hold that golden trophy one more time. The regular season doesn't mean nearly as much to them as it will to most NBA teams. The Celtics have confidence in the fact that they can beat any team, anywhere. They don't need the comfort of having home-court advantage to succeed. Boston point Rajon Rondo has frustrated Rose in years past. He will surely enjoy the challenge of guarding the league's MVP. Noah and Garnett haven't always seen eye to eye, and there's no doubt Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers will know what kind of game plan to expect from one another -- given that Thibodeau spent time in Boston as Rivers' assistant before coming to Chicago.
It would be tough for the Celtics to get past the Bulls in a seven-game series (most likely in the second round), but it wouldn't be impossible. Historically, the Bulls have never played well in Boston. They didn't win a game there last season. If Boozer and Noah continue to struggle in the paint defensively, there is no telling what kind of damage a healthy Garnett could do in what would likely be his last best chance to win in the postseason. The overriding issue for the Bulls isn't that they don't have the defense to succeed this year, it's that Noah and Boozer have yet to prove they can consistently play well on the floor together. If they fail to do so in a series against Boston later this spring, they'll be headed home a lot sooner than everyone in Chicago had hoped.