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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Getting Derrick Rose in sync, Luol Deng some rest should be Bulls’ priorities

The theory that the Bulls are better without Derrick Rose is gaining momentum as 
circumstantial evidence 
accumulates. It’s absurd, of course.

When the Bulls have been at their best, Rose has been at the top of his game. What’s important now is that he and his teammates return to that level before the playoffs begin.

It’s all about peaking for the Bulls now that they are all but assured of home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference finals. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s list of priorities became clear as fans streamed out of the United Center after the Bulls’ 96-86 overtime victory Thursday against the Heat. A schedule that has been an enemy all season now becomes an ally.

The Bulls’ next three opponents have an average winning percentage of .248. The Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats provide ample opportunity for the Bulls to accomplish two objectives that will assure they will be healthy, rested and playing at a high level when the postseason begins.

The first is obvious: Rose needs to get his timing back and his legs under him. I had a hunch heading into the game against the Heat that Rose was going to do something he never had done before. The last time he had played — Sunday against the New York Knicks — he committed eight turnovers and missed two clutch free throws that cost the Bulls a victory. He wanted to play in the rematch Tuesday against the Knicks, but the decision was made for him.

I expected a memorable performance against the Heat, but I wouldn’t have guessed he would be held to a career-low two points and find himself on the bench during overtime.

It never has been more obvious that Rose is out of sync. His shots aren’t falling, and he’s playing tentatively, which might be the result of not having his usual extraordinary lift because of groin and ankle injuries. He needs time to round himself into shape and create synergy with his teammates. The next three games provide ample opportunity for him to do so.

‘‘It’s been a hard year for him, a hard year,’’ guard Kyle Korver said. ‘‘You’re 23 years old. You were MVP last year. You come in and get four or five different injuries in a crazy season with all these games. It says a lot about him and his character.

‘‘There’s not a lot of superstars who can take the criticism that he gets and play the minutes that he does and still keep [his] head. He’s a really humble guy. He’s all about winning. . . . Obviously, he has the ball most of the time — he’s the MVP, a great player — but if someone else is open, he’s going to pass the ball. He’s a great guy.’’

Rose and guard Rip Hamilton need time to develop into the kind of one-two punch that can help the Bulls be as successful against the Heat in the playoffs as they have been in their last two regular-season victories. About 30 minutes a game for the next three games should do the trick. Then Thibodeau can unleash the hounds when the Bulls visit the Heat on Thursday.

‘‘My mind was thinking something that my body couldn’t do,’’ Rose said after the game Thursday. ‘‘I’ve never had a problem getting my rhythm back. I should get it back soon.’’

The second priority should be getting forward Luol Deng some much-needed rest. He played more than 42 minutes against the Heat and is averaging a league-leading 39.4 minutes despite having a torn ligament in his left wrist.

Rookie swingman Jimmy Butler has been effective guarding the Heat’s LeBron James and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony this season and might be of use as a spot defender in the playoffs. Getting Butler on the floor in the final seven regular-season games will give Deng some rest and prepare Butler for his postseason assignment.

Thibodeau wants to win every game, regardless of the circumstances, and that philosophy has served the Bulls well in the last two years. The schedule now allows him to continue accomplishing his short-term goal while taking a longer view that can help the Bulls maintain the momentum gained Thursday.

‘‘It was a fun game [Thursday], but it was just a game,’’ Korver said.

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