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Bernstein: Health Concerns Cloud Bulls' Opportunity

By Dan Bernstein- senior columnist

(CBS) It's a new courtesy from the Bulls this year, providing a detailed injury report before each game they play. The PR department sends an email that gives us a better idea what to expect on the floor, and it lets us know who's ailing or on the mend based on downgrade or upgrade from previous status.

Here's exactly what showed up in my in-box Saturday at 4:31 p.m.:

"Chicago Bulls Injury Update (Jan. 10)

For tonight versus Milwaukee:

Doug McDermott (right knee) is out
Mike Dunleavy (right ankle) is out
Derrick Rose (left knee soreness/right hip contusion) is questionable
Pau Gasol (left chest contusion) is probable
Kirk Hinrich (left hamstring) is probable
Joakim Noah (left hand) is probable"

But for parenthetical mention of concussions or stingers, it resembles a typical NFL team some point around Week 9. And informative as these updates are, they also serve as constant reminders of the fragility of the Bulls' current opportunity.

At season's midpoint, they look like they could win the Eastern Conference. That means something more than it once did, too, with no Western team insurmountable in a best-of-seven. It's a genuine title chance, thanks largely to a desperate mess in Cleveland running out of time for clean-up.

The Atlanta Hawks' gaudy record and Washington's impressive recent shot across their bow notwithstanding, the Bulls are set up to make a real run for the first time in the Tom Thibodeau era, with no more Miami Heat looking down at them from above a glass ceiling. They can do this.

If healthy enough.

Rose's story continues to be bizarre, as so many things with him are. He ended up not playing at all Saturday night and wasn't seen at the United Center. He's expected to consult with team orthopedist Brian Cole once again, and Thibodeau was left to spout more disappointed uncertainties about the availability of his $20 million man. Rose had been playing all kinds of bad basketball, too, shooting 28 percent in his last seven games, not guarding anyone and generally drifting around the floor. SportVU tracking stats that measure speed and distance show his lack of once-signature burst.

This after Thibodeau seemed to have finally gotten through to Rose about his desire to play. Unhappy that Rose removed himself from the game against Denver on Nov. 25, citing hamstring soreness, the coach instructed him to remain in the locker room at halftime instead of joining his teammates on the bench. Rose stayed there with Jen Swanson, the team's new "Director of Sports Performance" who functions for him as Grigori Rasputin did for the Romanovs.

Why Rose wasn't even in attendance Saturday night isn't clear, nor was his choice to be the only member of the traveling party to skip their White House tour last week. Nothing surrounding him is ever without some kind of mystery or oddity, anymore.

The other knee concern is Noah's, and he finally admitted that his offseason procedure was more than arthroscopic maintenance. He's obviously struggling, and with a game based more on effort than talent, it shows. It has been difficult enough for him learning a new role with Gasol excelling close to the basket, and complicating that with a chronic knee issue is not good news.

Dunleavy had an MRI on his ankle Saturday, with results pending at press time. He has been a critical cog in the newly productive offense, spacing the floor and moving the ball. The tracking numbers show his hustle. And when he's at small forward, Nikola Mirotic can play his more effective stretch-four role.

Hinrich has a history of having hurt almost every part of his body, and a heavy workload will all but ensure that continues for him at age 34. Gasol has been a glorious revelation to this point, but he's also 34 and has battled serious injuries. Taj Gibson plays every night on an ankle loosened by repeated sprains, and McDermott has gone from intriguing lottery-pick acquisition to non-factor afterthought.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler's explosion from role player to star has been the story of the season. We're starting to see opponents turning more defensive attention to him as a result, and that becomes easier to do when other offensive weapons are missing or limited due to injury. What's more, Butler isn't only leading the NBA in minutes, but the SportVU data shows he also leads the league in total distance run per game, at 2.8 miles. He was still in the game at the end of a blowout loss to the lowly Jazz, still attacking the rim against contact in garbage time, allowed out there for no apparent reason other than unnecessary risk. Red-lining his engine to this point has worked, but one can reasonably wonder if it can be sustained into June.

A deep playoff run looks like it's going to happen one way or another for a Bulls team with the proven ability to keep grinding through adversity. The issue remains just how adverse their overall health conditions will be when the real games arrive.

On the injury report, any major achievement from these Bulls must now be listed as both probable and questionable.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score's "Boers and Bernstein Show" in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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