Beating Boston just the beginning

CHICAGO -- Doc Rivers said he liked his team before Thursday night's game against the Bulls.

And after?

Well, the Bulls are like that straight-A student all the other parents hold up as the annoying example of how their own kids should behave. And after Chicago outworked the Boston Celtics late Thursday night in a 93-86 victory, Rivers sounded thoroughly ashamed.

"I had to use two timeouts to remind them this was an NBA game," Rivers sputtered. "This was the worst approach to a game all year for us. Chicago was just too tough for us. … This was unacceptable. It was a crime. We just thought we were cool tonight. We were the cool Celtics. … I don't want to hear about us winning crap."

Silly as it sounds, the Bulls, a league-best 43-13, needed this win. Not just to prevent their first three-game losing streak since the Vinny Del Negro dog days in March 2010, but because they needed to remember who they are, with or without Derrick Rose.

The Bulls overcame an 11-point halftime deficit not with perfect basketball, but with lockdown defense, a 24-16 rebounding advantage, fewer turnovers (four in the second half after committing five in the first quarter alone) and the energy they simply must have to survive, let alone succeed, in the playoffs.

Rivers identified mental toughness as the difference Thursday night. One team had it. His team did not.

"[Thibodeau] told us to play inspired [at halftime]," revealed Joakim Noah, who finished with 17 points, nine rebounds. "He said it looked like we were going through the motions and playing with our heads down."

It is a common malady in the NBA, particularly this season, but Bulls basketball it is not under Thibodeau. And when it reared its head in losses against Oklahoma City and Houston this week, it suddenly revealed a team more exposed than ever without its leader and vulnerable to a disappointing playoff exit should it continue.

Rose missed his 12th straight game with a groin injury after giving Bulls fans perhaps their best hope over that span that he would return. But the Bulls are now 15-7 without Rose this season, 8-4 during this last stretch, further cementing their good habits.

"We don't make excuses in this locker room," said Luol Deng, who led the team in scoring with 26 points -- 12 in the fourth quarter -- and four steals. Carlos Boozer had 14 rebounds. "All season long guys have been getting hurt.

"The way we played in the first half, we weren't happy. And we said, 'We know we lost two games, but let's just play hard.' Whether you make a mistake or not, we just try to do the right thing."

Not to pop anyone's bubble but the pressing question remains whether the right thing is good enough to get through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs; whether there is another gear for a team that consistently operates in first.

And while we're doomsaying, this groin pull of Rose's is indeed worrisome. Anytime you hear "groin pull," regardless if it's accompanied by a team that keeps insisting he's day-to-day, it's a several-month ordeal. It's especially not good when Rose says he is still in pain, as he did before Thursday's game. Pain means he's still injured, still vulnerable to reinjury and, just as bad, a hindrance to the game he has to play if the Bulls have a prayer of getting past Miami in the playoffs.

Let's face it. The Bulls, with an almost-unheard-of two days' rest, should have beaten the Celtics, coming off an overtime loss at home Wednesday night. That the Bulls found themselves in time is certainly a positive, and fans can only hope Rose will return in time for the team to find its groove.

The good news is that in the meantime, Rip Hamilton, in his second game back after 14 games missed with a shoulder injury, looked a little more aggressive and finished with nine points on 4-of-11 shooting, taking better care of the ball with no turnovers in 20 minutes.

But not to be overlooked are the other players who have suffered from overwork, namely C.J. Watson, now 12-of-48 from the field in his past four games.

Model students, the Bulls know what they have to do. They have the character and the coaching to do it. Whether they have the necessary manpower remains to be seen.

"We're trying to win all our games," Thibodeau said before the game, "but more important, we want to improve each game, each day. We want to play well down stretch and be healthy, but it's important for us to go step by step."

If the rest of us can't be patient, at least he can.