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Bulls need Rip Hamilton to stand up to Heat

Richard Hamilt(from left) John Lucas III Joakim Noah Carlos Boozer show their frustratiafter Bulls turnover late fourth quarter Monday. Hamilthas

Richard Hamilton (from left), John Lucas III, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer show their frustration after a Bulls turnover late in the fourth quarter Monday. Hamilton has missed most of this season with a variety of injuries. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 28, 2012 8:16AM

The temptation is to believe that the Bulls don’t need Rip Hamilton to get where they want to go.

It’s a powerful temptation based on the way the team has chewed through the schedule without him for most of the season and without Derrick Rose for some of it.

Everything’s good, right? Who needs a 34-year-old who can’t seem to stay healthy? Who needs a guy who wears an invisibility cloak over his uniform?

The Bulls do. They need a rickety, sharp-shooting Hamilton, even if their NBA-best 40-11 record would seem to scream down the very idea of it.

The reasons the Bulls signed Hamilton in December haven’t gone away. They still need another element to throw at the Heat. They still need somebody with more offensive skills than Keith Bogans gave them last season.

This is where the more enthusiastic Bulls fan says, “Have you seen John Lucas III lighting it up lately?’’

Yes, I have. And I also can’t help but think that Lucas will be lucky to get a few minutes a game in the postseason, when coaches rely more heavily on starters.

Hamilton is out with a shoulder injury, and the Bulls are hoping he’ll be back soon. They’ve hoped that before. He has missed 35 of 51 games this season with various injuries. It’s fair to ask when would be too late for Hamilton to come back and still be a factor in the playoffs. After the Bulls’ dreadful 108-91 loss to the Nuggets at the United Center on Monday, they have 15 games left in the regular season.

“He’s missed a lot of time, but it’s actually encouraging the way he’s moving right now,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The fact that he’s a veteran I think helps. We won’t know where he is until we actually get to where he’s playing in the games. We’re concerned, but we feel it’s going to be a big plus for us.’’

If Hamilton doesn’t come back soon, the Bulls are in danger of being the same team they were last year, only with another year of experience under their belts, a deeper bench and a head coach with a raspier voice. The year of experience will help. The deeper bench, not so much.

We’re talking about a championship here, the only thing that matters for the Bulls. All the victories in March are swell. But how will they help Thibodeau’s team in June?

There’s a lot to like about Lucas. Nice guy. Works hard. Same with Ronnie Brewer and C. J. Watson. But if you think they’re going to do a decent imitation of a healthy Hamilton in the postseason, you’ve been sniffing Bengay.

The Bulls are 12-5 without Rose this season, 5-2 during his current absence. Great, right? Of course. Victories are good — you heard that here first. But their bigger meaning? They could help give the Bulls a first seed. That could mean home-court advantage throughout the postseason, though it didn’t mean much when Miami bounced them from the conference finals last season.

Assuming the Bulls will tighten their rotation in the postseason like everyone else does, it would seem their bench advantage would shrink.

That’s where Hamilton comes in — or doesn’t. He’s been a tease this season. He declined to talk with reporters at Monday’s morning practice. You have to look elsewhere for credible intelligence on the guy.

“He’s looking good,’’ said Rose, who has missed seven straight games with a groin injury. “He’s moving way better than I am right now. He’s in the practice. I’m just on the side watching. But he’s moving good. If anything, I think he should be ready to play any given night.’’

Monday wasn’t that given night.

If it can ever be said that watching a game minus the NBA’s reigning most valuable player can be fun, the last few weeks would be the time. All those things we complain that the league doesn’t have — unselfishness, perpetual tenacity, etc. — the Bulls have exhibited.

If you’re a fan of doing things the right way, you want that to count for something. It should count for something if life were fair. But life isn’t fair. Some teams coast in the regular season and find an extra gear in the playoffs.

Not to get too philosophical on you, but what does it all mean? What does all the regular-season success mean for the Bulls? Very little if they come up short of their expectations.

Mr. Hamilton? Any time you’re ready.

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