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Even without their MVP, Bulls look like contenders in Magic rout

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Derrick Rose is turning out to be more valuable on the bench than Dwight Howard and other NBA stars have been on the floor. With their defense setting a franchise record in an 85-59 win over the Magic on Monday, the Bulls improved to 10-4 this year in the absence of Rose, the injured MVP. Their winning rate of 71.4 percent without him is better than all but two teams -- Oklahoma City and Miami -- in the everyday standings.

In a league ruled by the most talented individuals, Chicago is transcendent. Howard (18 points, 12 rebounds and four turnovers) was easily the biggest talent on the floor, yet he was outplayed by Carlos Boozer, who finished with 24 points on 12-for-18 shooting to go with 13 rebounds and four steals. The Bulls have overcome the absence of Rose, All-Star Luol Deng (who has missed nine games) and shooting guard Richard Hamilton (31 absences) to enable second-year coach Tom Thibodeau (100-30) to win his 100th game faster than any coach in league history. It's worthwhile to point out that Phil Jackson started out 100-42 with Michael Jordan -- who, by the way, was rarely injured.

"He's the hardest-working guy I've ever been around and he deserves it," said Bulls center Joakim Noah of his coach. The coach, in turn, would say the same kinds of things about his team, and no one in the league would argue with either one of them.

The other day Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy was mentioning to his assistants that the Bulls might be able to win games even if they were missing all five of their starters. "To me, they're the best team in the league as far as a team collectively playing together, being unselfish, being committed -- doing all of those things it takes to win," said Van Gundy before this game. "They're the best team.''

Then, without having to worry about Rose, Van Gundy watched the Bulls nonetheless control the pace and hold the full-strength Magic to 59 points, which is the fewest Chicago has ever allowed in a regular-season game. The Magic made four of 20 threes, provided Chicago with 25 points on 19 turnovers and shot no better from the free throw line than the Bulls did from the three-point line, as each went 7-of-18, respectively. When he wasn't acknowledging the superior teamwork of the Bulls, Van Gundy was criticizing himself. "Our offense was pathetic, and that's something that I have got to take a look at because we've got better players than that," he said. "I don't want to lay it on one or two guys, and I also don't want to absolve anybody. This is a team-wide thing."

A night like this raises intriguing questions for May and June. Might the Bulls be able to win a championship while overcoming the superior star power of the Heat, Thunder and other contenders? In the last week alone the Rose-less Bulls have beaten Miami, Orlando and Philadelphia, the other top seeds in the East. Rose should be in no hurry to push himself back from his latest groin injury because his absence generates opportunities for his teammates to grow more confident at the expense of their rivals. "Right now they're the No. 2 offensive team in the league and the No. 2 defensive team in the league," said Van Gundy. "You see those numbers, you're saying [they're a] championship contender."

The normal NBA thinking is to give a hard-driving team like these Bulls credit for their work in the regular season while asking whether they can raise their level of play in the postseason, which is something the stars of Miami should be able to do. But couldn't it also be true that the Bulls won't need to play any better or more efficiently than they have at their best this season? Or how about this one: If they can win as impressively as they have in recent days without Rose, then maybe they can yet elevate their overall game when he's at full strength when the real season starts in six weeks?

A team known for its point-guard play earned a clobbering victory on a night when its starting point guard, C.J. Watson, went 0-for-8 from the field with three assists and two turnovers. The Bulls are malleable and resilient. They pulled away at the end of the opening quarter on a trio of threes by aptly named third-string point guard John Lucas III. He finished with 20 points in 21 minutes off the bench to outscore anyone in a Magic uniform, and each time Lucas made a shot the Chicago fans made the arena sound like it belonged to them.

"We've got a deep team," said Thibodeau, who is not one to exaggerate.

Someday soon enough, when Rose is healthy, we're going to find out if they have a championship team. There's no sense in saying they don't, because if they've shown a talent for anything, it's for creating splendid surprises.

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