Bulls, Rose take smarter approach

OAKLAND, Calif. - The crowd was tight to the court a half-hour before the Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors tipped off and only one player was left shooting.

Moving clockwise, around the top of the 3-point arc, Derrick Rose pushed off both feet and shot effortlessly, repeatedly. There is still daily rehab, but there are also two workouts per day, there is running on a treadmill, now there is shooting. There are no timetables, none spoken of publicly anyway, because everyone involved is taking a much smarter approach this time with Rose's Recovery, The Sequel.

Nobody has spoken publicly of being "cleared by doctors" and presumably nobody will. Not a word has been uttered aloud about Rose coming back anytime soon to play for the Bulls.

But it doesn't mean for a second that Rose is down or dour; quite the opposite. While Rose hasn't talked publicly in weeks about this second comeback, his demeanor is absolutely upbeat. A torn medial meniscus in the right knee isn't nearly as painful or as difficult to come back from as a torn ACL. The rehab isn't nearly as difficult, neither is the recovery time, and the psyche isn't as battered on the road back.

Last winter, even when Rose had resumed practicing with his teammates, he'd say to people he knew, "I know I'm doing the right thing." Even so, there was a caution, if not trepidation about playing again, advisedly so, given that so many players with ripped up ACLs had come back too soon and said so.

But no such trepidation appears to exist this time, not outwardly anyway, and Rose has never been an actor. He's engaged in a way he wasn't a year ago, with basketball in general and his team specifically. People close to Rose say he's never watched and studied the game the way he does now, both the detail and the volume of games. He knows the tendencies of half the college point guards in America, from Syracuse's Tyler Ennis to Northwestern's Tre Demps to Iowa State's DeAndre Kane.

Coach Tom Thibodeau decided to engage Rose more fully this time around, playfully grilling him these days on nuances of the game usually reserved for grizzled veterans or assistant coaches. Rose has joked that Thibs is trying to turn him into a coach, and told teammates that sure enough, he sees the game in greater detail having watched so much from the sideline, in ways that will make him a better player when he can get on the court and stay there.

If only his knees will hold up the next time, whenever that time is.

All this is to say, there's a reasonable optimism around Rose right now, given how depressing things were Nov. 22 when he suffered the torn meniscus. Of course, there's no reliable forecast that will guarantee Rose's health going forward, no matter if his latest recovery is on or ahead of schedule, as recent reports have suggested. And whenever he does return, every person watching, in arena and on television, will hold his or her breath with every cut, sudden stop, landing or explosion.

The team's decisions to not give daily updates on Rose or make him available to the media for constant comment are surely wise ones. They might actually tamp down irrational expectations as long as Adidas doesn't schedule a massive "comeback" campaign.

Anyway, just as Rose's mood appears decidedly sunny, the fog lifted from the team some time ago, that is after the one-two punch of Rose's second injury and the trade of Luol Deng. Now, the Bulls simply deal with the daily issue of being completely unable to score for long stretches against even the most mediocre defensive teams. But the fight is back, and fairly consistent even as the team's level of play fluctuates.

The fight is there because Joakim Noah's there, daring anyone to suggest his team will purposely tank to improve its draft position. Does Noah's emotional pot boil over occasionally, such as Monday night in Sacramento when he demonstrably dropped f-bombs on each of three officials? Well, yes. Thursday night, after I'd suggested on "PTI" that Noah's profane rant wasn't that big a deal, and perhaps even understandable in the context of trying to carry the emotional load of a team missing two of its three Musketeers (Rose and Deng), Noah said, "You can't defend any part of what I did the other night. It was bad. Can't do it ... It was just a bad look."

OK, it was inexcusably boorish behavior, but on some perverse level, Noah's absolute refusal to give in -- even when he colors outside the lines -- is a huge part of what the Tom Thibodeau Bulls are built on. There's a level of determination, some would even say athletic defiance, they have to play with, especially without the franchise player. They're likely going to be a .500 team at best, but Thibs and Noah would rather take on all comers than let somebody suggest they'd roll over, no matter how many teammates are injured or traded.

Noah being named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team is a vote for determination and the willingness to have teammates' backs at any cost, nearly as much as performance over the first half of the season. As the Bulls fight through the final stop of their six-game road trip, perhaps the optimism that comes from Rose hitting all those jump shots and Noah's inclusion in the mid-season classic will remind the Bulls of what could be if the two of them can one day soon be the formidable tag team we used to know.