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Westerlund: Bulls' Closing Lineup Carousel Keeps Spinning

By Cody Westerlund-

CHICAGO (CBS) – With 8.8 seconds left in a 106-101 loss to the Celtics on Saturday night, Bulls reserve point guard Aaron Brooks fouled out, and fans started filing out of the United Center.

That Brooks didn't get a standing ovation on his way to the bench after willing Chicago back into the game with 19 points in the fourth quarter was a shame. He was one of the few who played with any energy in the Bulls' fourth game in five nights, filling his role as a sparkplug and creator with a game-high 26 points and eight assists.

"I can play offense," Brooks said with a smile when asked if he's an offensive energizer.

Just seven games into his Bulls tenure, Brooks has found his niche, averaging 13.0 points and 4.9 assists in 22.0 minutes per game. And now just seven games into the season, we've also learned a bit about coach Tom Thibodeau's late-game rotations.

When Brooks is hot and Derrick Rose is hurt – as he was Saturday in dealing with two sprained ankles – Brooks will find his way into the closing lineup. It's happened twice now in the past week, as he helped finish the Magic off in a win Tuesday.

Jimmy Butler will always be a late-game stalwart, and one way or another, Kirk Hinrich's going to find his way out there too. The Bulls have played six games this season that remained in doubt until late, and Hinrich has been part of the closing lineup every single time.

That included Saturday, when he went scoreless and was 0-of-7 from the field as Mike Dunleavy sat on the bench the entire fourth quarter after scoring a season-high 27 points just a night earlier and then continuing his quality shooting in the first half. On a team with so many moving pieces and health hurdles to clear in the past few years, Thibodeau has always found trust and calm in Hinrich's knowledge of the defensive system.

The more difficult decision for Thibodeau lies in the frontcourt, where he must choose two of the trio of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol to finish games. It's also where the drama resided Saturday night.

Because of injury, illness and blowout, only twice in the first six games of the season did Thibodeau have to make the tough big man decision. Against Cleveland, he primarily went with Noah and Gibson. Against Philadelphia on Friday, he rode Noah and Gasol late.

"However the game is going, what the matchups are, that's what we're going to go with," Thibodeau explained.

It was the Noah-Gibson pairing that complemented Brooks on Saturday in helping the Bulls make a push from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit. Until 2:03 remained, that is, and Thibodeau subbed Gasol in for Noah.

Given the roll Chicago was on, it was perplexing. Noah's the reigning defensive player of the year, and the Bulls needed stops down the stretch. Sure enough, with Boston leading 100-98 with 25 seconds left, it was an offensive rebound by center Kelly Olynyk that sealed the win. He grabbed the rebound between several Bulls after Gasol helped on the drive.

Maybe Noah would've made a difference in the sequence, maybe not. But neither Thibodeau nor Noah sounded pleased with how it played out.

"Jo's got restrictions," Thibodeau said simply of the substitution.

As Noah gets back to strength after offseason left knee surgery that proved to be more cumbersome that originally anticipated, the Bulls are looking to keep him around the 32-minute mark or so, and he played 31:26 on Saturday. It's not like Thibodeau to pull someone in such a situation unless forced, so it's logical to assume that the front office and/or medical staff has again been recently harping on him. After all, it was just eight days prior that Thibodeau had used Noah for 37-plus minutes against the Cavaliers.

Asked about those restrictions his coach had mentioned minutes earlier, Noah had nothing to say. He simply shook his head and shook his head and never answered, none too pleased with the result or his role in watching it. Noah's not moving as well this season, but he's still the heart and soul of the team and was productive Saturday.

Chicago's in good shape at 5-2, tied for second in the East, but it's also wise to acknowledge there are many unanswered questions. The physical and mental shape of Rose is a concern. The rebounding problem isn't just a few-games anomaly, it's now an issue that Thibodeau has acknowledged and said he'll look at from every angle, including personnel.

Then on Saturday night, we got our first look at how a minutes restriction for a key player affected the Bulls.

It ended with everyone grumpy but the bigger picture well intact.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

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