Bulls still feeling the heat even in Boston


Feb 11

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Joakim Noah was talking about how good he feels coming into Sunday’s national TV matchup with the Boston Celtics. So was Luol Deng and several other of the Bulls players, anxious for the chance to test themselves again. It’s when you get the feeling of being little kids again playing ball.

“You feel a certain way when you wake up,” said Noah. “It’s easier to get out of bed for some reason.”

I understand, but then I also wince some as I watch them. Deng sits for perhaps a half hour after the game with his feet in a bucket of ice cubes. Ever tried that? I have. I usually last about 14 seconds. Noah was putting on something that looked like a body stocking, squeezing into the thing like someone trying to take 20 pounds off without exercise.

Noah realized what I was looking at.

“Our strength coach is on top of everything from the (compression) tights we wear on the plane to the cold tubs, the ice,” he said. “All those things aren’t too much fun, but they definitely make a difference.”

The Bulls are coming out of their toughest stretch of this short but grueling season, and there seems to be a lot of optimism. Derrick Rose got another day off skipping the Bobcats game Friday after easing through 22 minutes against New Orleans Wednesday. He remains uncertain about playing Sunday against the Celtics because of his sore back. Some among the Bulls are guessing he’ll try because it’s the Celtics and then there are just three games next week. Others doubt Rose will play. It will be left up to him, and he and coach Tom Thibodeau said they’d know better Sunday after treatment Saturday.

Meanwhile, Richard Hamilton remains away from the team on a personal family matter and is not scheduled to play at least for the next several games.

You hear the players talk about “treatment” these days, and in some respects it’s a steady stream of fairly uncomfortable activities to prepare them to continue playing.

It’s the science of health without the chance for much rest, especially this season. The games come quickly, and the players have to be ready. There aren’t any of those two and three and four-day breaks the players see in typical NBA seasons. Yet, the games count and the fans pay as much. And no one likes to look bad.

It’s easy to say players don’t care, but I challenge anyone to accuse Bulls players of going half speed to rest injuries. Plus, there’s a lot of personal pride. No one wants to look bad. Not in front of thousands of people no matter how easy it is to suggest.

So the players go through a vast regimen of minor tortures when they are not playing. That’s why strength coach Erik Helland and massage therapist Rachel Parr accompany the team on trips these days.

The accoutrements the players are wearing, sleeves and virtual body suits Noah mentioned are the compression garments that have become so familiar around the NBA. They can look like armor, though not the kind you’d see baseball players wearing, like Barry Bonds did, to protect against errant pitches.

Helland says the items are to immediately reduce swelling and particularly, in effect, force circulation. The idea is that it speeds recovery by circulating the blood. So players after games and practices and especially on the plane flights after games slip into these.

Players are sleeping in them as well, which isn’t always the most comfortable.

Then there are the interminable hot and cold treatments, again to promote healing and expeditious recovery. You’ve got to get those bodies reacting quickly. Time off is losses, which is also why after the season players will take weeks or months to return to normal.

So yes, the players sit in a 50-degree tub for three minutes. OK, go try it. Ever stood in a cold shower? I last about seven seconds. Now sit down and stay there. And then get out and go into a hot, scorching tub. Then go back into the cold tub.

Helland says it’s another device to promote quick circulation, which hastens the healing.

Have you ever been to a pool that has a spa next to it? You get out of the pool and go into the hot tub. Sit there for a few minutes and then how does that pool feel? OK, add 10 degrees to the sauna and take 30 degrees off the pool. And then sit still for three minutes. That’s what the players are doing every day.

There are about three cycles of it, perhaps 15 minutes of what seems to me a long 15 minutes. There are countries that use these methods as torture.

Deng is so accustomed to sitting in these huge tubs of ice it’s like he’s on a beach vacation when you talk to him after a game. He’s usually reading something and then will look up as the reporters squeeze around the tub of ice, trying both not to fall in or drop their recorders.

The Celtics? Deng’s eyes brighten. He’s just made that elusive All-Star team, but he always in his mind goes back to that 2009 playoff series he missed. I remember him sitting there forlornly in the locker room every game, not saying anything as reporters avoided his dull gaze. It’s as if every game back in Boston for Deng is a chance to relive some of what he missed then.

“Boston has great players,” says Deng, who’ll get the best of them, as usual, in Paul Pierce. “Any of those guys can have a great night, Ray (Allen), Paul, Kevin (Garnett), (Rajon) Rondo. It makes them so tough. You can’t really go into a game saying you’ll shut down one guy. We’ll stick with our defense and if one guy gets hot make an adjustment. Pierce, to me, is one of the best small forwards to play the game. He really knows how to score. Every possession you have to lock in. He’s so smart.

“Definitely, you look forward to games against teams like that,” Deng added. “They’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for awhile. Their defense is similar to ours (because of former assistant Tom Thibodeau). So it’s a challenge.”

Noah, similarly, has distinct memories of the Celtics, though for different reasons. It was in that series in which he truly broke through as a Bull, especially with his brilliant closing plays in the memorable triple overtime Game 6. Noah’s feuded with Garnett, who doesn’t talk as much these days with his game in decline, and Noah is, not surprisingly, unpopular in Boston. Noah loves that stuff and he’s playing his best ball of the season now.

“It’s a great environment to play in, always a battle,” he says. “Some games are easier to get up for than others. That’s definitely one of them. It’s the whole package (in Boston). The feeling you get in that building. It’s the history. It’s exciting stuff.”

It’s not the same Boston team anymore, though they’d been hot in recent weeks. They’re coming off back to back losses, Friday in Toronto where they were again hammered inside and afterward by coach Doc Rivers. They were outrebounded 42-34 by a Raptors team starting Aaron Gray at center (11 rebounds) after the Lakers brutalized them on the boards Thursday in a home loss. It should be a huge Bull edge as the Celtics are 29th in the league in rebounding and last in offensive rebounds.

Though Rivers talks about running, it’s an aging, mechanical Celtics team, 25th in scoring and 28th in steals. Their defense remains among the best, so they can be troublesome and difficult.

So it was another afternoon Saturday after a light practice of stepping between arctic cold and searing heat, of napping, if there’s time, in pinching, suffocating body suits, sleeves and leggings, and, yes, a welcome massage before going back to the torture chamber. All to provide some Sunday afternoon entertainment.

Noah just smiles. “It’s fun,” he says.

Who can disagree?

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