NEW YORK -- Throughout Chicago's injury-ravaged regular season, one that has yet to see Derrick Rose slip on a uniform, one that ended with Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson battling through a smorgasbord of strains, bumps and bruises, what has haunted coach Tom Thibodeau most is this: The defense has suffered. It was still good. The brilliance of Thibodeau is in his system, disciplined, flawlessly executed, with players programmed to relentlessly contest every shot. Chicago ranked sixth in the league in defensive efficiency this season and top-10 in critical categories like defensive field-goal percentage and points allowed. By NBA standards, it's elite; by the Bulls, which ranked in the top-two in all three defensive metrics in Thibodeau's first two seasons, it needed work.
Still, addressing a roomful of reporters before Game 2 of the Nets-Bulls first round series, Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo issued an emphatic warning: We have to push the tempo, Carlesimo said. We can't get into a half court game with them. On Monday night, Carlesimo's worst fears were realized: Chicago dealt Brooklyn a 90-82 defeat, limiting the Nets to 35.4 percent shooting, including 19.0 percent from the 3-point line. Brooklyn's transition offense stalled (15 fast break points), and with the Bulls clogging the lane the Nets were limited to just 30 points in the paint.
"We were playing against their halfcourt defense a lot and missed shots," deadpanned Carlesimo. "Most of the shots we missed were because they defended us so well, and they were contested."
Indeed, with the roster resembling a M.A.S.H. unit, the Bulls' best chance to advance is still with a suffocating defense. In so many ways, it has been a challenging season for Chicago. The absence of Rose has been an never-ending saga, but it is hardly the only issue the Bulls have had to deal with. Unwilling to shell out the money to keep Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson around in the offseason, Thibodeau was forced to teach his system to a new crop of players which, coupled with the string of injuries, caused the defense to slip beneath standard.
"We had a lot of injuries," Deng said. "The first two years, we were able to stay healthy the majority of the season. This year we had a lot of guys in and out, that affected us."
At its best, though, the Bulls' defense is stifling. The team held what guard Jimmy Butler called a "brutal" film session on Sunday, dissecting the mistakes made in Game 1. Up a point at halftime on Monday, Chicago shut down the Nets in the third, holding Brooklyn to 11 points on 2-of-19 shooting to extend the lead to 12 at the end of the quarter. Every time a Nets guard rose up for a jump shot, a Chicago defender was there to contest it. Every time All-Star center Brook Lopez looked to post up, Joakim Noah or Nazr Mohammed was there to push him deep onto the perimeter.
"Nothing was falling," Deron Williams said. "You have to give credit to their defense for taking us out of our stuff; that was the quarter that definitely did it to us."
This is Chicago's identity, what it must rely on to have any hope of extending the season. The presence of Rose is a constant, tantalizing tease. Before the game on Monday, Rose, wearing Bulls practice gear and a brace on his surgically repaired left knee, knocked down jump shot after jump shot, moving fluidly with every one. The Bulls won't pressure Rose to play, not until he is ready, not with another four years left on his deal, not with a relatively young team ready to welcome him back next season. As good as he looks, it's not a risk worth taking.
"If Derrick comes into this locker room and says he wants to play tomorrow, his uniform is ready," Deng said. "If he doesn't, we are with him 100 percent. As a teammate and as a friend, I know how much he loves the game and how competitive he is. He really wants to play. This decision, even though people are coming down on him, it's really killing him, it's really hurting him. I know how much he wants to be out there with us."
Without Rose, the Bulls will grind games out. They will squeeze everything they can out of their battered bodies, which are unlikely to improve anytime soon. Noah hobbled down a hallway towards the Bulls bus late Monday night, landing gently on his right foot, grimacing with every step. The plantar fasciitis that has troubled Noah since the All-Star break is ever present, sending sharp, searing pains shooting through his foot. It's there, as is the knee pain that limited Gibson to 11 minutes, the thigh pain Hinrich is playing through, the bumps and bruises that Deng regularly deals with.
"We feel OK, but we can't get hyped right now," Gibson said. "We still have a long way to go."