Special to ZAGSBLOG
NEW YORK — Without Derrick Rose to start this season and with the surprise emergence of the Knicks as a potential threat to the defending NBA champion Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls have been somewhat forgotten as we pass the quarter pole in this NBA season.
However, the Bulls have done a fine job of treading water through 25 games without Rose. After a second win over the Knicks, 110-106, on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, a question needs to be asked.
With this roster and a defensive-minded guru for a head coach in Tom Thibodeau, can the Bulls be a factor in the Eastern Conference if they can get Rose back in a timely fashion?
“We feel like we still have our best basketball ahead of us, and that’s exciting,” said New York City native Joakim Noah, who finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds. “We feel like we can still get a lot better and to come out and get a win like this in the Garden, it means a lot.”
Rose participated in non-contact drills in practice on Thursday for the first time since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on May 12 in Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The timetable for Rose’s return at that time was 8-12 months, but the fact he participated on Thursday has ramped up speculation that a return could be coming much sooner for the 15-10 Bulls.
When Thibodeau met with reporters before the game, he reiterated what he said earlier in the day at shootaround. There is no timetable for the 2011 NBA MVP’s return.
“He’s coming along,” Thibodeau said. “Still got a long way to go, just focused on his rehab. We have a lot of guys stepping up and playing well. Our bench is coming around for us and for us, we know we have to defend, rebound and share the ball. If we do that, we’ll have a chance to win.”
Friday marked the Bulls’ eighth win in their last 11 games. They’re doing it with defense and good balance on offense. They entered Friday second in the NBA in opponent points per game at 90.3, while five players entered the night averaging in double figures, led by 17.7 points per game from former Blair Academy and Duke star Luol Deng.
Deng led five players in double figures on Friday with a game-high 26 points, while the defense held an opponent under 100 points for the 17th time this season and the seventh time in a row.
It looked for a while like the Knicks were going to begin a march to an all-but-certain top-2 seed in the East, but have now lost two of three and are beginning to come back to the pack just a little. To further complicate matters, Amar’e Stoudemire is all but set to come back from a knee injury with a return coming as early as Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“They’re really good and they keep a lot of pressure on you at all times,” Thibodeau said of the Knicks afterwards. “You have to play against them. A 10-point lead, 15-point lead, you’re not safe against this team.”
The Knicks may be an Eastern Conference-best 19-7, but the dynamic of the team will change with Stoudemire coming back and whether or not that leads to problems in the early going remains to be seen.
If problems do arise, the Bulls could be there to pounce as they round into form and try and make a move away from an Eastern Conference logjam that includes the Atlanta Hawks, Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics. Those six teams are separated by just 2.5 games from the third seed to the eighth seed.
With or without Rose, the Bulls certainly don’t seem to be fazed by the Knicks with a 2-0 lead in the season series. If the Eastern Conference semifinals were being played right now based on the current seeds, the top-seeded Knicks would be facing the fourth-seeded Bulls.
But they play twice more in the regular season and Carmelo Anthony, who was ejected in the fourth quarter after putting up 29 points, is already circling the date.
“Chicago-New York game will always be a physical game,” he said.. “We see them again Jan. (11), though, back here in the Garden. We will be prepared for that.”
**For Video, Notes and Quotes on the game, read Adam’s NBA.com Notebook here.