CHICAGO (AP) With the return of Derrick Rose and the addition of Pau Gasol, the Chicago Bulls came into the season with soaring expectations.
Now, it’s time to deliver.
The Bulls open the playoffs at home against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday eyeing on a deep run after battling injuries during the regular season.
They expect to have all their starters available, a rarity to this point, and they still see themselves as a force in the Eastern Conference after earning the third seed with a 50-32 record.
”I certainly feel a lot more confident than I did last year at this time,” Mike Dunleavy Jr. said.
There are a number of reasons why he would feel that way.
Start with Rose making his first playoff appearance since the 2012 postseason opener. Throw in the addition of Gasol, Jimmy Butler’s ascent to becoming an All-Star, the depth and the fact that all five starters are expected to play.
The Bulls are 17-5 when they go with their regular lineup of Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Gasol and Joakim Noah.
Now, they’re going against a rebuilt team that made a big jump from winning a league-low 15 games last year to finishing 41-41 in its first season under coach Jason Kidd. The sixth-seeded Bucks did that despite losing Jabari Parker, the No. 2 draft pick and a Chicago native keenly interested in this series, to a season-ending knee injury.
”We’ve got nothing to lose, really,” said Bucks point guard Michael Carter-Williams, acquired in February. ”Everyone’s expecting them to win. We’ve just got to go in there being the underdogs and just fight.”
Here are some things to look for in this series:
ROSE’S (PLAYOFF) RETURN: All eyes figure to be on Rose. After all, he hasn’t been healthy for the duration of the playoffs since a run to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls lost to Miami, and their championship hopes were on hold for a few years while the former MVP point guard recovered from a torn ACL and then a torn meniscus in his right knee.
”Obviously, he’s been through a lot,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. ”It’s good that he’s able to play. When he’s on the floor, it makes us a much different team.”
It’s been an inconsistent season for Rose, who recently missed about six weeks following a minor operation on his right knee. He also sat out the second half of Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Atlanta because of soreness in his left knee.
HEALTH WATCH: Rose and Noah (left hamstring tendinitis) went through a full practice Friday as did Taj Gibson (strained left shoulder). All three will play Saturday. Thibodeau said Rose and Noah – who missed the past two games – will get the same number of minutes they have been playing, assuming they are performing well.
Kirk Hinrich (left knee) did not practice and is questionable for the game.
For Milwaukee, Jared Dudley (back) and Jerryd Bayless (neck) practiced and should be ready to play.
CARTER-WILLIAMS ADJUSTING: After an adjustment period following the trade from Philadelphia, Carter-Williams seems to have settled in as the Bucks finished the season 7-5. The 2014 Rookie of the Year is more of a true point guard than Brandon Knight, whom the Bucks dealt to Phoenix as part of the three-team deal to get Carter-Williams. His 6-foot-6 frame adds another long defender to the court for a team that already includes 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo on the wing.
BABY BUCKS: A young team blossomed under first-year coach Jason Kidd’s tutelage to finish with a .500 record. The Bucks relied on defense. Now that they’re in the playoffs, they are no longer an unknown commodity. How will the Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and shooting guard Khris Middleton respond to their first doses of playoff pressure?
STOPPING GASOL: Pau Gasol averaged 24.3 points while leading the Bulls to a 3-1 record against Milwaukee and had one of his best games ever against them. He scored a career-high 46 points and grabbed 18 rebounds Jan. 10. That made him the first player to record at least 46 points and 18 rebounds for Chicago since Michael Jordan had 69 points and 18 rebounds in a 117-113 overtime victory at Cleveland on March 28, 1990, according to STATS.