CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler has a sore heel, Derrick Rose has a blurry eye, Mike Dunleavy has a balky back, Kirk Hinrich is one more leg injury from the glue factory and Joakim Noah’s busted swag flickers on and off like an old lightbulb.
But no one cares about excuses when it comes to the star-crossed Chicago Bulls. It’s all about the results, even in late November. After all the injuries, heartbreak and drama, this team is judged on a nightly basis; and more times than not in this early season, fans are left scratching their heads and pondering what they just watched.
Butler summed it up after an unsightly, but much-needed 92-89 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. It was a curious game in which the Bulls led by five with 6:32 to play, didn’t hit another field goal and — thanks to some familiar defensive play — still came out on top against one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
“I don’t think anybody cares that I’m injured,” Butler said after scoring 14 points, including two clutch free throws at the end. “Nobody feels sorry for me. So you’ve got to play.”
You’ve got to play. Somewhere in a Gold Coast steakery, Tom Thibodeau nods his head.
With Dunleavy, Hinrich and Aaron Brooks out with injuries, Butler couldn’t really rest if he had to, but he can’t make this injury worse. It’s just painful. He can’t pad his shoe too much because it gets too tight, so he just has to rest the foot when he’s not playing and try to pick his spots when he’s on the court. Butler, the most dependable player on an unreliable team, hit 5-of-9 shots and all four free throws. Butler could still slash to the rim with the bum heel. And the Bulls need him to be aggressive.
“Not even drive more. Just make a move and take the shot,” Rose said of Butler. “We want him to do more. We’re not rushing him, we’re not pushing him to do it. We’re going to wait for him to get comfortable, more comfortable with taking those shots. That’s something that we want for him.”
Butler, who is shooting 46 percent from the field and averaging a team-high 20.3 points, leads the Bulls with 215 shots taken, 12 more than Pau Gasol and 16 more than Rose. Gasol, who went 6-for-18 from the field on Monday, is shooting 41.9 percent; Rose is at 35.7 percent.
Rose’s current shooting woes are well-documented, but it’s important to remember he still suffers from double vision in his left eye. While that preseason injury is improving — his eyes appear more on level now with the scar tissue decreasing — his shooting hasn’t budged much. Rose went 5-for-17 from the field on Monday night. He started the game 1-for-7 and went 1-for-7 in the second half. He did have six assists, but all came in the first half. He was credited with a block on Tony Parker’s game-ending 3-point attempt.
“Trust me, I’m so over that,” he said about his eye. “It’s not an excuse at all. I adjusted a long time ago. It’s all about rhythm.”
This was the first game in a rhythm-finding home stretch, during which the Bulls play eight of nine at the United Center. They have a game Wednesday against the Nuggets, Saturday against the Hornets and Monday against the Suns. Rose said he sees the upcoming schedule as a chance to get himself going. As for his offensive game, which consists of a lot of floaters that are off by an inch here or there, he said, “It’s coming, man.”
And you want to believe him, because he has flashes, like when he got relatively hot in the second quarter on a few possessions. But since he hasn’t had much sustained success lately, it’s a wait-and-see deal for a guy whose vision remains blurred.
Rose, though, was able to see Noah have a throwback game. Playing just 23:06 off the bench, Noah had eight points, 11 rebounds and seven assists with no turnovers. The Bulls were a plus-10 when he was on the court.
Noah had two crossover drives that resulted in baskets.
“They were nice crossovers,” Rose said.
Butler agreed: “He got his swag back.”
Noah let loose after his buckets and did his jazz hands as he ran up the court. The players notice when Noah is himself — the erstwhile MVP candidate that annoys half the league and aggravates the other half.
“It’s great, man,” Rose said. “Remind me of the old Jo, just going crazy over anything.”
Noah has played 14 more minutes than backup guard E’Twaun Moore this season and has taken just 52 shots, making only 19. Noah, who was saddled with injuries last season, admitted he has struggled to adjust to his reduced role coming off the bench. His longtime teammates commiserate with him.
“Of course it’s hard for him,” Butler said. “But Jo’s willing to do whatever it takes for this team to win. That’s why he’s one of our leaders. Coming off the bench with the young guys, he’s really showing what it takes for the whole team to be successful.”
The Bulls have so many questions right now, from the short-term health problems of their best players — Dunleavy just suffered a setback to a back injury that has kept him out all year — to the long-term viability of this roster, most of which was constructed for a different style and a different coach. Can first-year coach Fred Hoiberg develop this roster into a legitimate playoff threat? Can the Bulls find their equilibrium and live in the present?
At 10-5, the Bulls have potential but offer their fans no certainty from night to night. They’re a work in progress, and sometimes the work isn’t fun to watch.
“Who wants to be great right now early in the season?” Rose said. “If you are, that’s good, but right now we’re trying to get used to one another, get used to the lineups when we’re out there. We’re still missing [Brooks], still missing Kirk [Hinrich]. We’re missing some players, but we’re getting used to each other. It’s just going to take a little more time.”
The Bulls have plenty of time, but what will they do with it? Like Rose’s left eye, I think our vision of this team will improve over time.