Contrasting emotions

CHICAGO -- You want to bet me that I can write the saddest short story about the Chicago Bulls season in fewer than 10 words?

How's this? For Sale: DRose 3.5s, never worn.

OK, that's just a new twist on an old, likely aprocryphal Ernest Hemingway anecdote. But tell me it doesn't fit. Who would've thought Rose wouldn't lace up his signature DRose 3.5 sneakers all season?

Few Bulls fans, not to mention actual Bulls and team executives, would've believed me if I'd have told them in the fall that Rose wouldn't have any setbacks and go this long without playing. The Rose story, the lost Return, has been anything but concise. It's overwhelmed a season and opened a fissure in his once-infatuated fanbase.

Rose's return went from the biggest story in town, to the most exhausting. Most Bulls reporters can't wait to pen these 11 words: "The Bulls have officially ruled out Derrick Rose for the season."

Given the organization's cautious optimism, the Bulls might not admit that Rose isn't coming back until the team is knocked out of the playoffs. Maybe not even then.

Playoff time should be a cause for celebration in Chicago, but really, everyone feels like Luol Deng after a 46-minute affair. It's been a long, not particularly rewarding season. Without Rose, the Bulls can't reach their ultimate goal.

But the Bulls can advance a round or two in the playoffs, and that's a perfectly fine goal, given the reality of this season.

The downside of a longer postseason is Rose speculation will continue for a couple more weeks at least.

"We're still hopeful!" a Bull will say to a dozen recording devices.

"We don't want him skipping any steps," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will remind us.

And Rose's agent B.J. Armstrong will "no comment" and his brother Reggie Rose will sit in the front row along the United Center baseline as the team plays out the string, and life will go on without No. 1.

But at least with the playoffs here, the Bulls can focus on a task more important than praying for Rose's return, preying on their first-round opponent.

"We'll do our job and let the rest of it take care of itself," Carlos Boozer told reporters after the team's easy win in Orlando on Monday. "But the biggest thing is being healthy going into the playoffs. If we are, we can be very dangerous."

Boozer isn't lying. The Bulls can't stay healthy and can't score, but if they can do the first, with their defense, they can beat anyone.

Despite their challenges, the Bulls were every bit as tough as the first two glorious years of the Thibodeau era. No, they didn't win as much as they did with Rose, unable to sustain any kind of winning streak healthy or injured, but when faced against good teams, the Bulls brought it. That's commendable.

As tough as this season was to watch at times, you have to admire this team for rebounding as well as Omer Asik in Houston.

The Bulls are 44-37 going into the last game of the regular season, at home against Washington on Wednesday. This is right around the preseason predictions in Chicago, and those included some hope of Rose returning in March.

The Bulls won two of four against Miami, while breaking the Heat's 27-game winning streak, and swept the season series against the Knicks, ending their 13-game win streak. There were other highlights, but those remains fresh in my mind's eye.

Despite the Rose ennui that lingered over the entire season, there were still a few positives that bode well for the future, most notably the rapid maturation of swingman Jimmy Butler.

The second-year player out of Marquette, the 30th pick in the 2011 draft, excelled as a reserve and especially in the starting lineup, proving he was capable of handling Thibodeau's extra value meal minutes plan. Butler and Taj Gibson are easily the Bulls' best athletes, which on this team means they can dunk.

The 6-foot-7 Butler is the kind of young, relatively inexpensive player you need when your salary cap situation is dire, and he could very well be either the shooting guard the team has desired to match up with Rose, or even Luol Deng's replacement at the small forward.

Thibodeau, no doubt, would love to have both in the starting lineup next season as interchangeable, lockdown wing defenders.

With so many injuries this season, Thibodeau has been criticized for his "all or nothing, #FredClearedHim" style. But it should be noted that the Bulls core veterans all had very good seasons, when they could play. Players clearly get better under him, a mark of a great coach.

Deng continued to cement his legacy in Chicago as a tougher-than-you player, an All-Thibs glue guy, while Boozer silenced most of his critics (not you, Jeff Van Gundy) by playing almost every game and giving the Bulls prime-time production, at least offensively. Joakim Noah made his first All-Star team and was a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, but his recent bout of plantar fasciitis has tempered his season, and shows the liability of playing him big minutes.

Was this season a success? No. The past two years have raised expectations, even in a year like this one. But if the Bulls can figure out a way to scratch and claw to a playoff series win or two, they can go into the summer with no regret.

Going into the season finale, the Bulls are tied with Atlanta for the No. 5 seed Atlanta and hold the tiebreaker. The Hawks, who lost to Toronto on Tuesday, finish the season at New York on Wednesday.

If the Bulls win at home against Washington, that would send them to Brooklyn for the 4/5 game and the winner gets to face Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals. If they lose, they play at Indiana.

Each side has its pluses and minuses. Chicago has won three of four against Brooklyn and lost three of four against Indiana. But if the Bulls beat Indiana, they'd likely play the Knicks in the next round.

I'm hoping the Bulls lose their home finale and play Indiana in the first round, and you should too. That way, they either hasten their playoff exit or avoid Miami in the second round. It's a win-win.

The newly crowned Central Division champion Pacers were happy to give the Bulls their comeuppance in the regular season, and the Bulls would love to reassert their dominance in the division.

No matter who they play, the Bulls will be prepared. But without Rose lacing up his shoes, it's easy to wonder how the team scores enough to win any series. For Thibodeau, it's just a matter of execution.

"The question is are we going to be sharp?" Thibodeau said to reporters in Orlando. "You're talking about playoff basketball where the intensity level is very high, and it's the same opponent over and over. And most often times the games are decided by one or two possessions. So how you match up with people is critical. A bad matchup for a minute in the playoffs is 10 points. So we got to be right and ready."

The Bulls season has been a testament to patience and frustration as we've waited in vain for Rose's return. The end could be near, so enjoy the remaining playoff basketball. Soon enough, we'll be spending the summer with nothing to do but obsess over Rose's workouts. Now that's a sad story.