DEERFIELD, Ill. — The Chicago Bulls came into the season with big expectations. They're entering the playoffs with one big question mark.
That would be Derrick Rose.
The top-seeded Bulls realize they need their superstar point guard to rediscover his MVP form if they're going to make a run at the championship, starting with their playoff opener against Philadelphia on Saturday. Rose missed 27 games because of injuries and sat out the regular-season finale, but coach Tom Thibodeau said he "looked good to me" during Friday's walkthrough and expects him to "play well" in Game 1 against the eighth-seeded 76ers.
That would be a big boost for a team that tied San Antonio for the league's best record at 50-16 and clinched the top overall seed for the second straight year despite a long list of injuries after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Chicago posted the fourth-best winning percentage in franchise history at .758, but even so, there's a sense that this team might be vulnerable, that another go-around with LeBron James and the Heat for the right to play for the championship is not quite a sure thing.
The Bulls were shaky down the stretch, going just 8-5 in April, and even when Rose played toward the end, he clearly wasn't his usual dominant self. Now, they're about to face a 76ers team that stumbled in a big way and finished 35-31 after a 20-9 start.
"They weren't the number one team in the league for just any old reason," Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala said. "Defensively we think they're one of the best team units in the league, as far as being on the same page. Following the schemes to a tee and making teams play at their pace."
Yet, the Sixers also made it clear: They wanted Chicago and no part of Miami.
Chicago product Evan Turner said so when he told the Delaware County Times the Sixers would be "dodging the tougher team" if they wound up facing the Bulls. And they basically made sure it happened by holding Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams out of Thursday's loss at Detroit even though they had a shot at the seventh seed.
They got their wish. But should they have been careful what they wished for?
"Stop with all that other nonsense," said Turner, Rose's high school rival.
He said he has "never disrespected an opponent" and even praised the Bulls' bench, saying, "Their bench is great and we have a great bench as well. So I think everything is tit for tat to say the least."
Asked about Turner's comment, Bulls center Joakim Noah grinned and said, "It's cool."
He wasn't about to lash back. If the Sixers would rather play Chicago, that's fine with him. The fact is, the Bulls are sort of an unknown thanks to a run of injuries that could have derailed most teams.
They went with their projected starting lineup just 15 times, winning 13 of those games. Richard Hamilton missed most of the season, his first in Chicago. Luol Deng has been bothered by a torn ligament in his left wrist, and then there's Rose.
He averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 assists, but whether it was the condensed schedule or simply bad luck, he just couldn't stay healthy. He battled groin, back, toe, foot and ankle injuries and struggled down the stretch even when he was able to get on the court.
"I think when you look at his play, he's played just as well this year," Thibodeau said. "Last year, he didn't have the injuries. That was the big difference between the two seasons. Last year, he had to do a lot more scoring because of the injuries (to Carlos Boozer). This year, he did a lot more play-making. It was hard for him to get into any kind of rhythm. Every time he put a few games together, he took on another injury. But he's feeling good now. Hopefully, that's a good sign."
Rose played just five games this month and clearly was out of sync.
He committed eight turnovers against New York on April 8, shot 1 for 13 with two points against Miami four days later and turned it over seven times against Detroit on April 15. He showed a little more burst in his final regular-season game against Indiana on Wednesday but couldn't finish, going 3 of 11.
"I think that each game he played, he got more confident," Thibodeau said. "The Indiana game, I thought he was driving the ball hard. He missed some layups that he normally makes, but the explosiveness was back, which was a positive thing."
Question is: Can the Bulls count on him to take over a game if needed?
"No question," Noah said. "He's the best closer in the game."