By Nick Shepkowski-

UNITED CENTER (CBS) As the Bulls near the halfway point of the season, their most important piece is getting close to a major step forward in his comeback. Three-time All-Star and 2010-11 league MVP Derrick Rose could return to full-contact practice later this week.

Tom Thibodeau was asked about progress Rose was making in his return and after giving a positive response he added that Rose could in fact be returning to full contact at practice by the end of this week. Thibodeau went on to stress the “could” part of that idea.

From there Rose would still likely be weeks away from returning to game action as the Bulls’ head coach went on to discuss that from there Rose would then be evaluated on a “day to day and week to week basis”.

Whether it happens this week or not, the fact this is even being discussed right now should be seen as nothing but a positive as Thibodeau made it known that Rose is “very close” to returning.

The Bulls will without a doubt take every precaution going forward with Rose, but the light at the end of the tunnel of Rose’s return continues to brighten.

Lakers No Match For Bulls

The Lakers are loaded with talent, regardless of how bad their record has been. In their first game since announcing Pau Gasol has been moved out of the starting lineup in place of Louisville product Earl Clark, the Bulls stepped up big when it mattered and pulled away late.

Despite the Lakers falling to just 17-24, Joakim Noah wasn’t about to apologize for celebrating the Bulls latest victory — they’re 24-16 in 40 games to date.

“It’s a big game every time the Lakers come to town, a lot of electricity in the building,” Noah said. “To come up with the win and play the way we played – we showed a lot of heart tonight.”

The Bulls’ center finished with six points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.

Butler Earns Kobe’s Respect

On a normal night, it’s usually Luol Deng who guards the opponent’s best scorer. Well, Monday night was not a normal night as Deng didn’t play due to a sore right hamstring. Instead, Jimmy Butler pulled his best Lou Gehrig to Wally Pipp type performance, guarding the league’s leading scorer in Kobe Bryant the majority of the evening and holding him to just 16 points.

“Nothing but praise for the way he competed,” Bryant said of Butler’s efforts. “I was proud of how he played and defensively he stuck to his principles.  I’ve got nothing but praise for him.”

Just when it felt like Bryant was about to take over late — like he’s done so many times before — Butler played a huge role in holding the NBA’s leading scorer to just two points in the game’s final quarter.

Bryant went on to praise Tom Thibodeau’s defensive mind.

“Thibs does a great job, every time you face him he does a great job,” Bryant said.

Noah was also quick to praise the big night from Butler: “Jimmy boy was huge. Defensively it’s great for him. He’s making a name for himself, he’s showing his athleticism and it makes us that much tougher knowing we have guys like that in the lineup.”

Butler finished with 10 points, none bigger than the two that came with 4:11 left in game, which beat the shot clock and stretched the Bulls lead to eight.

Hinrich’s Biggest Night to Date

Kirk Hinrich had his best game of the season Monday, taking advantage of a struggling Steve Nash most of the evening.  Hinrich finished with a season high 22 points while hitting 9-of-11 shots.  His seven rebounds and eight assists added to his outstanding floor game.

The Bulls’ 27 points from behind the arc Monday were nearly double their average of 13.8 points per game coming from three point-range this season.

Noah Takes Blame for Saturday Benching

Joakim Noah put some closure to the situation Saturday night that saw the Bulls center benched during the comeback attempt versus Memphis.  Noah accepted full responsibility when asked about it Monday night.

“Thibs would never talk bad or say anything about us in the media but that was all me – he took me out and I was emotional about it, I was p—– off and said some things” Noah said explained. “I have the absolute respect for my head coach, it was my fault and I shouldn’t have said the things I said.”

Consider it case closed for Noah, who bounced back with a very strong defensive showing Monday.

Next Up

The Bulls practice at 1 p.m. Tuesday before hosting the Detroit Pistons at the United Center on Wednesday night.

In addition to covering the Bulls for, Nick Shepkowski is the associate producer for The McNeil and Spiegel Show. For Bulls information all season long, follow him on Twitter @Shep670.

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