There is no more surprise to be found at the sight of Derrick Rose leaving for the locker room, rather a familiar, gloomy exasperation that has hung over an organization for essentially all of its recent history. So it felt oddly normal as Rose limped into the tunnel in the fourth quarter of Chicago’s 106–101 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday night. The uncertainty, then, lay in a third consecutive vexing loss in a season full of them.
The Bulls called Rose’s injury patellar tendinitis of his left knee, and he was initially questionable to return after leaving the game in the third quarter. His eventual reappearance in the fourth lasted hardly more than two inauspicious minutes. It’s fair to ask why he of all the star-crossed stars even re-entered the game, but on the positive side, there was no visual red flag accompanying this injury.
As K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune pointed out, this was Rose’s first in-season issue with the left knee (in which he tore his ACL in April 2012) since January 2015. Rose was unconcerned as he addressed reporters postgame — again, nothing new — and said he hoped to play in Chicago’s next game Thursday. But a new wrinkle lay in that the state of the ex-MVP’s fragile legs was simply one part of the problem.
The loss dropped the Bulls to 22–15. They remain in firm playoff position. But there’s a certain vibe about this team and its inconsistencies that continues to leave a strange taste. Jimmy Butler calling out coach Fred Hoiberg nearly a month ago beget an eventual six-game win streak and their best ball of the season, which beget a brand-new skid. And from Saturday’s 15-point dud in Atlanta, to the loss Monday in Washington that had players bemoaning their own effort to Tuesday’s 17 turnovers against the middling Bucks, it’s been difficult to peg just what ails them. The Bulls went the final three minutes and 58 seconds without a made field goal in this one, until Pau Gasol’s meaningless three went in at the buzzer.
Chicago hits the midpoint of its season next week, and will likely hit that 41-game mark still without a firm sense of self. Their rotation remains crowded. Rookie forward Bobby Portis, who galvanized the team throughout that win streak with high intensity off the bench has logged a total of 24 minutes in the three losses. Joakim Noah has played 34 minutes in two games since returning from a shoulder issue that caused him to miss nine games — and he’s shot just 1–10, scoring three points. The Bulls now feature Nikola Mirotic at small forward, a position that exposes him defensively, and Hoiberg continues to yo-yo still-promising Tony Snell and Doug McDermott in reserve wing minutes.
If the cup is half-full, Chicago is still a potent team with 45 games to figure it out, and can get out all its frustration against lowly Philadelphia on Thursday. If it’s half-empty, there’s a newly-banged up Rose, a defense that’s allowed 340 points in three games, and a schedule set to intensify beginning Monday in Detroit, which kicks off a stretch of 11 of 14 road games. But regardless, much like their star point guard’s health, each setback grows wholly less surprising.