(Eds: Updates throughout with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)
By ANDREW SELIGMAN
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) - Derrick Rose's response was quick and emphatic, just like his drives and dunks.
Are the Chicago Bulls better than they were a year ago? Their superstar guard got right to the point.
"Better than last year?" he said. "I would say yeah."
Good enough to beat the Heat?
That's the big question around Chicago these days after last season's brilliant run ended with a loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls led the league with 62 wins, only to come up short in the playoffs, and they're looking for more this time around.
If they're going to play for a championship, there's a good chance the road will go through South Beach. For now, the Bulls are rolling along.
They're second to Miami in the Eastern Conference with a 27-8 record at the All-Star break. They have four more victories than they did through 35 games last season, even though Rose, Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton have missed time due to injuries.
"We find ways to win," Rose said. "Last year, it was new to everyone. This year, I think we're more comfortable with how (coach Tom Thibodeau) wants to play, knowing that he just wants us to go out there and play hard and play together all the time. This year, I think that we do that the majority of the time."
Not that it's been easy.
Besides the condensed schedule brought on by the lockout, they've played more road games than any team except Sacramento. They've gone with their projected starting lineup just five times because of injuries, yet the wins keep piling up.
The Bulls are 14-6 on the road, and they continue to get by even though they've been short-handed most of the year.
They were counting on Hamilton to take some of the pressure of Rose in the backcourt when they signed him in the offseason, but thigh and groin problems have limited the veteran guard to just 11 games.
Deng has dealt with a torn ligament in his left wrist but is headed to his first All-Star game. Rose has missed more games this season (10) than he did in his first three years combined (six) because of toe and back problems, but the league's reigning MVP declared himself pain-free on Wednesday. He said the pain in his lower back that caused him to miss five games recently is gone, and that is good news for a team that knows it's not reaching its ultimate goal without its superstar leading the way.
"It's the challenge that you face," Thibodeau said. "It's a lot more than just surviving. ... It comes down to the teams that are playing the best and are healthiest in the playoffs. I don't think you ever want to approach it where you're just trying to get through something. You want to improve. You want to do well. You have to always keep in mind what that ultimate goal is."
For now, the Bulls are in a good spot.
They're fourth in the league in field-goal percentage (46.0), fifth in 3-point accuracy (38.3 percent), and lead the league in assists per game (23.26). They're outscoring opponents by a league-leading 9.45 points on average and outrebounding them by a larger margin (5.48) than any other team.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer seem to be feeding off each other more lately after they missed significant time last season because of injuries, and Bulls players insist they're more comfortable with each other and with Thibodeau than they were a year ago.
They've had time together. They experienced highs and lows last season - the Bulls' best since the 1990s championship era. They raised expectations - sent them soaring, actually - only to come up short against the Heat. And now, they're looking for more.
Are they better than they were last season?
"We'd like to think so," Deng said.
Are they good enough to beat the Heat and win the Eastern Conference? That remains to be seen.
"All I know is, with what we have this year, I don't feel like we've peaked yet," Noah said. "We have to take it up another notch to win a championship."