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Bulls will be late risers

The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint -- and that's good news for the Bulls.

They open the regular season tonight in Oklahoma City, but the Bulls are very much a work in progress and will be without a key player for roughly the first month. We really won't begin to see what this team can be until power forward Carlos Boozer -- the top offseason acquisition -- returns from a broken right hand suffered in the first week of training camp.

While the Bulls have enough depth to withstand the loss of Boozer in the short term, that task is made more difficult by a brutal October/November schedule.

They open against an up-and-coming Thunder team that features the best young player in the league in Kevin Durant. The Bulls also have a tough road game next week against a Boston Celtics team that pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game in the NBA Finals in June.

Then in mid-November, the Bulls hit the road for nearly two weeks during the always-difficult ''circus trip.'' Having such a long road trip so early in the season is an annual challenge because teams are still finding their way, but this season's slate is the toughest in years.

It starts Nov. 16 with the Texas three-step, three games against all the Texas teams in four days. After back-to-back games against the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, the Bulls face the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 19 after a day off.

Then after three days off, the Bulls head west for a date with the Lakers. That begins a stretch of four games in five nights with matchups against the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings.

Of the seven games, only one is against a team with a losing record last season -- and that's the finale of the trip Nov. 27 against the Kings when the Bulls' tank could be close to empty.

Compiling two wins on such a trip could be considered a success, which means the Bulls would do well to be around the .500 mark when November ends and Boozer is close to returning.

Further complicating matters are these facts: The Bulls have a rookie coach and eight new players, and everyone is learning new offensive and defensive systems.

Coach Tom Thibodeau is highly regarded around the league, and his hiring should prove to be a positive. But this is Thibodeau's first head-coaching job, and there's little doubt he'll need an adjustment period.

There's also little doubt the players will need an adjustment period before they develop into the type of defensive team Thibodeau wants.

''The first thing was establishing the style of play, the second was trying to figure out what the rotation would be, who's healthy, who can go, then the big thing was how quickly we could get on the same page,'' Thibodeau said. ''We have [eight] new players, a new coaching staff and a tough early schedule. The biggest challenge was putting the system in.''

But despite all the early-season adjustments and challenges, the Bulls are poised to take a step up in class this season. They should battle the Milwaukee Bucks for first place in the Central Division and should earn the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The biggest reason for optimism is point guard Derrick Rose, who's entering his third season and seems primed for a big season.

Rose was an All-Star last season and should be even better now. He's better at finding ways to score, and his improving jump shot will make defenders think twice about slacking off and letting him shoot wide-open jumpers.

His biggest area of improvement will come on the defensive end, where he wasn't much of a factor the last two seasons. Rose got a head start on playing the type of ball-pressure defense Thibodeau wants during the FIBA world championship this summer and has carried it over to training camp and the preseason.

Rose, 22, is emerging as a team leader, and he won't let the Bulls struggle early.

''We have to go out there and play with a lot of confidence,'' Rose said. ''We know we're missing a key member of our team, but this is the NBA, and teams are not going to take it easy on you when you go out there.

''We still have to go out there and try to play hard. We have to be this grimy team. We want other teams to know that every time they play us, it's going to be a hard game, and we're willing to do whatever it takes to win.''

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