The popular notion that Indiana is the greatest threat to Miami in the Eastern Conference took a hit Sunday, when the short-handed Bulls took the Pacers to the wire before losing 97-92.
The Bulls played without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Richard Hamilton. Coach Tom Thibodeau used rookie Marquis Teague and swingman Jimmy Butler instead of Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer for most of the contest. And still, the Bulls trailed just 90-89 with 1:27 left.
"We didn't play any defense to start the game," Thibodeau told reporters after the contest. "We got in a hole, we fought like crazy to get back, put ourselves in a position. There were a lot of good things out there; a lot of fight."
So it stands to reason, if the Bulls get everyone back for the playoffs, they should be able to handle Indiana in a seven-game series. Homecourt advantage may not make much of a difference if Bulls fans continue to swarm Indianapolis like they did Sunday.
Of course, it's not that easy.
First of all, will the Bulls even be healthy come playoff time? Gibson figures to be back from a left knee sprain, but Hinrich and Hamilton have missed time with a variety of injuries this season. There's no guarantee they'll be fine during the postseason.
Then there's the chemistry issue. With an unfamiliar lineup on the floor late in Sunday's game, some sloppy possessions proved costly.
If Rose does return from ACL surgery, how long will it take him to feel comfortable with his teammates and vice-versa? Remember, Rose has never played with Robinson, Teague or Marco Belinelli, and his time with Hinrich dates back three years.
Maybe that's one reason Rose decided to join his teammates on the bench Sunday for the first time this season.
After the game, Thibodeau suggested there's no reason to read anything into Rose's appearance. It doesn't necessarily mean he's getting closer to playing.
"We talked about it from the beginning," Thibodeau said. "The reason he's been in back (during games) is because he's been working in back. There's stuff that he's doing back there and now he's not doing that as much, he's doing more before the game, so that part's taken care of.
"It's just the next step; he may not even be out there all the time. If he wants to come out (to the bench), great. If he doesn't, that's fine, too. Again, his focus has to be on the rehab. The team has to focus on our improvement and our next game. So at some point he'll be ready to go."
Logic suggests if Rose is going to come back this season, he should do it relatively soon. The Bulls have 22 games remaining. In theory, he could stay on a minutes limit in the postseason, but it would be difficult under those circumstances.
Rose's teammates appreciated his presence against the Pacers.
"It was great," Joakim Noah said, according to espn.com. "I know that it's tough for him to be on the bench because he wants to play, but it feels good to have him out there."
Added Butler: "It was great because he sees things that a lot of guys don't see, being a point guard and being there watching the game. It definitely helps to have him in your ear, have him on your side."
The Bulls decided to beat the snow out of town, so they abandoned plans to practice at the Berto Center on Tuesday and instead flew to San Antonio, where they play Wednesday.