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Bulls must rely on bench, but they should’ve done that in Game 1

Feisty center Joakim Noah says thBulls are team fighters ththey’re going make city proud. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Feisty center Joakim Noah says that the Bulls are a team of fighters and that they’re going to make the city proud. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: June 1, 2012 8:15AM

Funny how everyone is looking to the Bench Mob now for comfort, the same Bench Mob that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t believe in enough toward the end of Game 1.

If Thibodeau had trusted C.J. Watson, John Lucas III or any other guard who was sitting near him on the bench in Game 1 of his team’s playoff series with the 76ers, Derrick Rose wouldn’t have been on the floor and thus wouldn’t have a knee ligament that is doing a mean imitation of spaghetti right now.

The Bulls were up by 12 points with about 1:20 left, but Thibodeau somehow didn’t believe a victory was a given.

They have the best roster depth in the league. They won a lot of games without Rose this season, thanks to players who knew their roles and saw a greater good beyond individual accomplishments. That’s why Saturday was so frustrating, why Sunday wasn’t so hot and why Monday figures to be a bummer, too. The Bulls were going to win Game 1 regardless of whether Rose was on the court for the last 80 seconds. There was too much talent available to let the 76ers come back.

When I saw Rose limping like a wounded deer looking for a place to die, I literally slapped my hand against my forehead, cartoon-like. I was about 20 feet from where he was, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That, the head slap said, was exactly why Rose shouldn’t have been in the game.

Thibodeau was correct in his postgame assertion that an injury can happen at any time. But he had control of whether this injury was going to be allowed to occur late in Game 1. Maybe it was inevitable that Rose was going to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament anyway, that his knee was a ticking time bomb.

All I know is that it blew up Saturday.

Kyle Korver had a wonderful message for Bulls fans via Facebook. It was a “Braveheart’’ speech without the war paint, the homemade weapons and the bad teeth. He urged the faithful to continue backing the team. He said the players needed to know the fan base was behind them. He said the team could accomplish a lot with the backing of an entire city.

And he wasn’t alone in that thinking.

“We feel like we’ve been fighting all year,’’ center Joakim Noah said Sunday. “We’re a team of fighters, and we’re going to keep fighting and make the city proud.’’

Added Lucas, who can fire off words almost as quickly as he can fire off jump shots: “We have championships in our mind, and that’s where we’re going, and I believe that that’s where we’re going to be. We have a great group of guys, and everybody wants to win.’’

Even without Rose, the Bulls have a good enough roster to get past the 76ers. They might even be able to beat the Celtics in the next round without Rose. But they’re not going to beat the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals without Rose. There isn’t another star on the roster, the way there was when Michael Jordan retired the first time and Scottie Pippen took over.

Everybody on this team needs to play better. And Thibodeau needs to use his bench more than he otherwise would have in the playoffs.

“You’re not going to replace the greatness of Derrick,’’ he said. “We have to do that collectively as a team.’’

What a sad thing this is. Finally, Rip Hamilton seemed healthy, and we were starting to see a glimpse of what the Bulls were supposed to be, of what they weren’t able to be last season. Maybe the addition of Hamilton’s offensive skills would have gotten the Bulls past the Heat this time. I didn’t think it was enough, but I looked forward to the possibility of being proved wrong.

Watson is going to get more chances to prove he’s legitimate, but I don’t believe that’s what we came to see this postseason. Same with Lucas firing up III-pointer after III-pointer. We came to see if Rose could lift this team to heights last seen in Jordan’s era.

Some things are predictable, and you can bet that if the Bulls beat the 76ers, some misguided souls will insist the team is actually better without Rose. If you come across somebody like this, smack him on the back of the head. And save a noogie for Thibodeau.

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