Classic series leaves Bulls with good feeling

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DEERFIELD, Ill. - The morning after the incredible first-round series, Joakim Noah couldn't believe the applause he heard when he wandered into a restaurant for breakfast.

"It was crazy," he said.

Imagine the roar had the Chicago Bulls actually won Game 7 Saturday at Boston.

While pushing the defending champions to a league-record four overtime games, winning one in triple OT and another in double OT, the Bulls certainly captured the imagination even if their season ended with a comparatively dull 109-99 loss.

With rookie of the year Derrick Rose leading the way, the future looks promising for a franchise that was in disarray last summer. The arrival of Rose with the No. 1 draft pick, the midseason trade that brought John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento, and a late run lifted the Bulls to a 41-41 record and the Eastern Conference's seventh seed in their first season under coach Vinny Del Negro.

Now, there are decisions to be made.

The biggest involves Ben Gordon - and it's not entirely management's to make.

The team's leading scorer the past four years is an unrestricted free agent. And although he would like to return, Gordon pointed out that he's had better luck converting jumpers than sealing longterm deals. He is 0-for-2 in contract negotiations the past two summers.

"I know what I have here," Gordon said. "I love all my teammates. I love this city. So I definitely, in an ideal world, would like to be back here. That's the way I felt the last two summers and (a longterm contract) hasn't happened."

His teammates would love to have him back. So would his coach.

"Absolutely," Del Negro said. "Ben's been fantastic. Ben's a pro."

Added Luol Deng: "I love playing with Ben."

As a restricted free agent last summer, Gordon found few options and accepted the Bulls' $6.4 million tender offer just before the deadline in early October. The market could be slow again, with only a handful of teams having cap room and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh possibly hitting the market in 2010.

"Well, you only need one team, right?" Gordon said.

Whether Gordon helped his stock in the playoffs is open to debate. Sure, he averaged 24.3 points, scored 42 in Game 2 and hit the tying 3-pointer to force double-overtime in Game 4, which Chicago won. But he also shot about 39 percent in the series.

While acknowledging money will "have a large part to do" with where he winds up, Gordon said his role will not. He said he's more concerned about contending for a championship than starting versus coming off the bench.

If Gordon re-signs and the rest of the backcourt returns, there could be a crowd - particularly if Deng is healthy after missing the final two months with a stress fracture in his right tibia. That might mean more time at shooting guard for Salmons, who was arguably the Bulls' best player after the trade despite a strained left groin, and that could cut into playing time for Gordon and Kirk Hinrich.

It could also give Chicago depth and versatility.

Either way, the Bulls are certainly in a better place than they were a year ago.

They went from 49 wins to 49 losses last season. But there's optimism now after Rose's stunning debut, the maturation of Noah and Tyrus Thomas and that edge-of-your-seats series against Boston.

The young big men both came on down the stretch and were big factors in the postseason, with Noah averaging 10.1 points and 13.1 rebounds against Boston and Thomas contributing 9.6 and 6.3 while blocking just under three shots per game.

Rose looked like a star from the opening tip.

A Chicago native and top pick in the draft, he led the league's rookies with 6.3 assists per game while averaging 16.8 points and establishing himself as the franchise's first true cornerstone since Michael Jordan. While his to-do list this summer isn't long, it's not blank, either. He needs to improve his defense and jumper, get a better handle on when to attack and defer.

"He's 20 years old, was rookie of the year," Del Negro said. "He's had a fantastic season. He's only going to improve with his work ethic."


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