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Luol Deng could be the brace of the Bulls as Derrick Rose sits

Bulls forward Luol Deng drives by Kings forward John Salmons first quarter as Chicago Bulls host SacramenKings Tuesday February 14

Bulls forward Luol Deng drives by Kings forward John Salmons in the first quarter as the Chicago Bulls host the Sacramento Kings Tuesday February 14, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 16, 2012 8:22AM

There he was, just before the game started, standing in his sweats with the rest of the bench-warming Bulls, hugging the starters one by one as they walked past.

Ah, that’s not the role for Derrick Rose!

The reigning MVP of the league shouldn’t be cheerleading with benchies like Jimmy Butler and the ever-enthusiastic ‘‘White Mamba’’ himself, Brian Scalabrine.

But a bad back can turn a man into anything, even a bit of pregame fluff.

‘‘I really can’t explain it,’’ Rose said of the injury that has scared Bulls fans halfway back to the
Tim Floyd Era of Darkness. ‘‘Unless you have back problems, you don’t know.’’

Most people have had a spine issue at some point, and they may recall that sneezing can be like taking a sword to the liver.

‘‘Having back problems, you can’t do anything,’’ Rose said, refreshing our memories. ‘‘You can’t jump, or run. I know you all saw some of my games out there. I could barely attack or go to the hole.’’

And the truly frightening thing is that Rose has a bad left big toe, his launching pad, if you will, for all major takeoffs, and that injury may have led to the imbalance that created this back problem.

Word is the big toe is arthritic, which means it will be a chronic issue, which means . . .

Can you see where this injury thing is leading?

Painful realization

Rose, so young, so fresh, so focused, so talented, abruptly has looked into the deep pool of clear water under his gliding boat and seen mortality staring back.

As have we.

If Rose is going to be in and out and never fully healed this season, the Bulls’ 2012 title hopes are through.

Guards C.J. Watson and tiny gunslinger John Lucas III are nice fill-ins. But that’s all they are. Not their fault. By definition, nobody can replace the best.

As the sub-average Sacramento Kings hung around Tuesday night at the United Center, I wondered how this Bulls team without Rose would progress. With every timeout, I watched Rose lift himself gingerly from his padded bench chair, stand just outside the strategy circle, then slowly retake his seat with a grimace.

The Bulls looked like a good team, but not a great one. Certainly not one that could put away the Miami Heat in a seven-game series, which seems to be the benchmark for getting to the NBA Finals.

What will be needed is for the team to play more cohesively and feverishly than ever, and for someone — let us say, forward Luol Deng — to play like a superstar.

Isn’t that what an All-Star should do?

The lanky, long-armed, 6-9, 220-pound swingman can do a little bit of everything, and now would be the time to do a lot.

‘‘Yes, he needs to step it up,’’ general manager Gar Forman said. ‘‘But they all do. All of them.’’

Turning up the volume

Deng can look awkward at times and can have dull games, such as in the recent loss to the Boston Celtics on national TV, when he had only 10 points and five assists to go with two turnovers in 43 minutes of play.

But against the Kings, he seemed to sense the void and ratcheted his court presence up to about 81/2 on the 10-scale.

He finished with 23 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and was 9-for-9 on his free throws, a key stat because of how such accuracy could figure into a playoff run.

He was the glue for the Bulls in the 121-115 win, but again, these were the Kings, now 10-18, not the Heat, Thunder, Spurs, 76ers or Lakers.

Don’t lay it all on Deng’s shoulders, Forman implores.

‘‘Remember, he’s always been this kind of player,’’ the GM said. Forman explained that Deng has never had over-the-top stats.

Indeed, until this game, the most points he had scored in a game this season was 22; the most assists he had given out was five.

It’s likely Deng was named an All-Star as a nod to the Bulls’ amazing record with Rose. Somebody had to be helping out, right? And the Bulls are quite good even without their star point. But they’re not great.

This would be a sweet time for Deng to step up all the way to 91/2, maybe 10.

Until the real superstar comes, as they say, back.

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