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Intestinal fortitude carries Bulls only so far

Depleted by illness, team shows guts, but season's now on the brink

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

11:41 PM CDT, May 2, 2013

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Nate Robinson's hands gripped his scalp.

His elbows rested on his knees as Robinson sat at his locker for several minutes just staring at the ground.

Yes, Robinson felt sick late Thursday after the Bulls' 95-92 loss to the Nets — and it only had a little to do with the Bulls guard spending parts of the game vomiting into a bucket on the bench.

"I'm more disappointed about the loss — I'll be OK,'' said Robinson, who persevered for 18 points in 42 minutes despite being ill. "A couple of times I had to throw up during the game, but I didn't know if they'd call a foul on me if I threw up on Deron Williams. I'll have to check the rulebook on that one.''

Check every definition for gut-wrenching and it applies to this defeat that came down to the final possession and forced Game 7 on Saturday in Brooklyn.

"My stomach hurts a little bit, but you have to play through it,'' Robinson said. "We all played our asses off and have to continue to do that.''

Nobody can say whether the Bulls will continue with Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. Two hours before tipoff, Deng shivered as he limped through the locker room like a guy who spent most of the day taking intravenous fluids to combat flu symptoms.

Deng moved gingerly enough for Hinrich to catch him — and Hinrich missed Game 6 with a badly injured calf that required a walking boot. No wonder the Bulls eventually sent Deng, who CSN Chicago said was tested for viral meningitis, home to rest. Coach Tom Thibodeau didn't look ill, but that was before he filled out the lineup without Deng, Hinrich and, of course, Derrick Rose. Taj Gibson also was among the afflicted.

For a night, the Bulls' slogan became See Dread.

Thibodeau called it "a viral something-something.'' One day former Michael Jordan trainer Tim Grover probably will blame it all on food poisoning.

Add Joakim Noah's plantar fasciitis to a long list of maladies, and a group that thrives on adversity had the Nets right where they wanted them. You might say the Bulls' can-do attitude through tough times can be contagious too. It was again.

More than enough, Thibodeau likes to say. So it came as no surprise he repeated his mantra when the Bulls' next-man-up mentality threatened to become next-man-upchuck.

"You just deal with it,'' Thibodeau said. "If you want to use it as an excuse, you can. Preferably you don't.''

The Bulls didn't, showing the fortitude that defines them. But against a team as talented as the Nets can be when they're hot, effort goes only so far. Removing Deng and Hinrich removed the Bulls' two best perimeter defenders, which helps explain why the Nets scored 60 points in the first half and shot 56 percent.

Marco Belinelli started in place of Deng and provided an upgrade offensively over a guy who had shot 1-for-18 from 3-point range in the series. What's Italian for rising to the occasion? But defensively, a backcourt of Belinelli and Robinson created a matchup mess for the Bulls — or, as the Nets might call it, shooting practice.

Williams dictated a pace that never will favor the Bulls. By the end of a frenetic first quarter, in which the Bulls left the impression this would be another one of those games they found a way, it felt like either we were watching the Western Conference playoffs or somebody had turned the NBA clock back to 1982.

Eventually, the Bulls dug deeper, slowed the game down and let their hearts guide their heads. They personified T-E-A-M like they have done all season without their best player. They epitomized Chicago toughness the way Rose once did.

Speaking of Rose, he told TNT he still lacks "muscle memory,'' but I forget when I stopped putting much credence into anything he says about returning. Only God knows when Rose's muscles will remember how to play basketball for a team depleted by injury and illness that had to be hard for him to watch. Adidas' next campaign should be "The Refund.''

When Steve Kerr raises questions about Rose's psyche in sitting out the season, it shouldn't be dismissed. This was a trusted former Bull and NBA executive who has too much respect for Bulls Vice President John Paxson to offer anything but a thoughtful, candid analysis of the issue that has overshadowed everything.

A short-handed Bulls team could have used Rose against the Nets in Game 6 — or even Game 7. But nobody expects Rose to come back now.

Suddenly, now Chicago wonders if the Bulls can in a series — and perhaps a season — down to its final 48 minutes.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh