The Chicago Bulls bowed out of postseason play when they fell to the Miami Heat by a final score of 94-91 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night, but if anybody thought that elimination would finally put an end to all of the questions Tom Thibodeau and his team have had to answer about Derrick Rose, think again.
In postgame interviews, one of the very first topics of discussion was Rose, whose decision not to return after more than the typical 12 months of rehabilitation on his surgically repaired ACL was a constant distraction throughout the Bulls' postseason run.
Forever prideful, Thibodeau refused to concede that Rose's absence was the reason that the Bulls are now heading home.
To be fair, Thibs did cite "health" as a key to his team's defeat. But with the way Chicago players succumbed to injury and illness during the postseason, he could have been referring to almost anyone on the roster. And even more importantly, he's right—health really did hinder the Bulls.
Now, some of that poor health is probably attributable to the insane minutes Thibodeau required of players like Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler down the stretch. But the rotten luck that led to a botched spinal tap for Luol Deng and a bout of the flu that floored half of the roster could hardly have been avoided.
So Rose wasn't the only ailing Bull, and although his absence clearly hurt the team, it's hard to imagine he would have been able to carry a roster that was physically destroyed by the time it ran into the Heat.
Later, Thibodeau stuck to the company line on Rose, saying the team had made the right move by letting the point guard recover at his own leisurely pace.
Truthfully, the Bulls coach is making some sense. Rose is easily the most important figure in the franchise, so a mishap or a hasty return would have had a disastrous impact on the team's future. But nothing's promised in the NBA, and there's no guarantee the Bulls will make it as far as they did this season in future years.
The Bulls, more than anyone, know that luck can go bad at any time. So no matter what Thibodeau says, there must be a part of him that wonders whether Rose's decision to hold himself out cost his team the best shot it might ever have.
Next season might see Chicago return to its status as an elite team. But there's no way to be sure.
Noah, who logged major minutes all season long and struggled through an excruciatingly painful bout of plantar fasciitis in the playoffs, was diplomatic about Rose as well.
If anyone were justified in questioning Rose, it'd be Noah. The energetic big man suited up when almost any other player would have sat out. He gave everything he had to his team, and frankly, he did it when he was actually in worse physical condition than the admittedly pain-free Rose.
It's a testament to the team's unity that Noah never once called out his sidelined teammate.
The Bulls' season ended with disappointment. But at the same time, no realist could have honestly expected much more from this bedraggled, shorthanded crew. Things got chippy against the Heat, and the Bulls may not have gone out with as much class as they could have, but they certainly went out fighting.
As for the future, there's certainly some hope. And, of course, Rose is the guy providing the biggest source of optimism.
If nothing else, at least the Bulls won't have to deal with the constant questions about Rose's readiness next season.
For now, they can simply relax. And nobody deserves a break more than Thibodeau and his team.