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Time is suddenly on Bulls’ side as schedule lightens

The return forward Luol Deng from his wrist injury promise more practice time have Bulls stronger positias seasprogresses. | Jeffrey

The return of forward Luol Deng from his wrist injury and the promise of more practice time have the Bulls in a stronger position as the season progresses. | Jeffrey Phelps~AP

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Bulls at Nets

The facts: 6:30, CSN, 1000-AM.

Updated: March 7, 2012 9:54AM

Luol Deng felt fine the day after scoring 21 points in 41 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks after missing the previous seven games with a wrist injury.

And Derrick Rose’s back is a little stiff, but he participated in most of practice Sunday at the Berto Center and ‘‘he said he’ll be fine,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau reported.

All that was missing was a target date for the return of Richard Hamilton. Other than that, Thibodeau has the Bulls in great shape after a difficult first six weeks of a lockout-abbreviated season.

Acquiring Dwight Howard would be nice, but at this point, that might be more of a luxury than a necessity for the Bulls to make a run at the Eastern Conference title and beyond. At 20-6 (.769), they have the best record in the East and the second-best in the NBA behind the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 18-5 (.783). They’ve played seven games without Deng and 15 without Hamilton, including four with both of them out.

And while every team has dealt with injuries, no team has been taxed by the compressed schedule like the Bulls have. They’ve played 26 games in the first 42 days of the season. (They played their first 26 games in the first 56 games of last season.) They’ve played 16 road games, more than any team in the NBA, and are 11-5 in those games. They’ve already played on consecutive days 10 times, and they’re 16-5 in those games.

And now that they’ve weathered the brunt of the schedule storm, the Bulls are in position to finish strong because the schedule eases up and gives them more time to rest and practice. They’ll get multiple days off five times in the last month of the season. In fact, they’ll play 14 games in the final 29 days of the regular season. (The Miami Heat plays 18.)

Thibodeau, a chronic teacher, thrives on practice and repetition, two things that have been lacking this season. Take it for what it’s worth that the last time the Bulls had two days between games, they held the Cleveland Cavaliers to 30 percent shooting and led 63-34 at halftime of a 114-75 victory in Cleveland on Jan. 20.

‘‘Practice is huge,’’ Thibo­deau said. ‘‘[But] if your schedule is overloaded — like 19 games for us when we’re not having shootarounds or practice — you have to address those things in a walk-through or in a ballroom, which is entirely different.’’

The Bulls still have their issues. Rose’s back and Deng’s wrist bear watching. Hamilton’s return is critical. And no matter how much Thibodeau protests, Carlos Boozer’s inconsistent production is simmering below the surface. Boozer is averaging 10.2 points and shooting 44 percent in Bulls losses; he’s averaging 16.0 points and shooting 54 percent when they win. At some point, Thibodeau likely is going to have to break down and give Taj Gibson the minutes he deserves.

For now, though, the Bulls are in pretty good shape — still in position to catch the Heat when it appeared at the start of the season they might be losing ground. Not bad, considering the rough early road.

‘‘You have to be objective,’’ Thibodeau said when asked if he was surprised by the team’s success. ‘‘I love the attitude and approach of the team. I think it’s very serious-minded. But there are a lot of things that we can do better, and we want to strive for improvement every day so that at the end of the season we’ll be playing our best basketball and we’ll be healthy.’’

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