By KATE HEDLIN
(AP) -- It appears Derrick Rose is nearing a return from back spasms, but whether it happens in one of the Chicago Bulls' final two games before the All-Star break remains to be seen.
The NBA's reigning MVP could be back after a five-game absence Monday when the Bulls host the Atlanta Hawks.
Rose increased his activity in practice Friday, but did not play Saturday in Chicago's 97-85 loss to New Jersey. The Bulls fell to 7-3 without him, including five games he missed last month due to a toe problem.
Coach Tom Thibodeau said Saturday that Rose is "doing fine" with his latest ailment but has to "get the conditioning up to speed." It's not certain if he'll play Monday or Wednesday against Milwaukee - the team's final two games before the break.
While Chicago (25-8) has typically played well without its superstar, Rose's teammates looked lost in Saturday's home defeat. The Nets opened the game with a 22-3 run and the Bulls never mounted a serious rally while shooting 39.3 percent.
"We had a bad day," said Luol Deng, who had 14 points. "We've got no excuses. We played terrible, but it's over with."
Chicago hasn't lost consecutive games this season, and the team may need a better outing from Joakim Noah to continue that trend. The big man had stepped up in Rose's absence, averaging 17.5 points and 12.5 rebounds the previous four games before going scoreless with six rebounds in 21 minutes Saturday.
In two games against Atlanta this season, Noah has totaled three points - shooting 0 of 8 from the field - and eight rebounds, continuing his career-long struggles versus the Hawks. He has averaged 5.2 points on 33.3 percent shooting in 13 meetings, although he has usually encountered Al Horford in the paint.
Noah's former Florida teammate remains out with a torn pectoral muscle, and Atlanta will also be missing forward Marvin Williams following a death in his family.
Rose has found more success in the series. While he was held to eight points in the Hawks' 109-94 home victory Jan. 7, he scored at least 30 in each of the previous three meetings, including the Bulls' 76-74 win in Chicago on Jan. 3 - when Atlanta blew a 19-point lead in the final 14 minutes.
The Hawks (19-12) return to the United Center having lost three of four and six of nine overall. They have averaged 87.0 points during nine February contests, scoring fewer than 80 in three of them, including a 97-77 loss at Portland on Saturday.
Atlanta got off to a hot start, connecting on 12 of 18 shots in the first quarter, but it made just 18 the rest of the game and was outrebounded 50-27.
"Tonight was just one of those nights where the energy level just wasn't up where it needed to be," guard Joe Johnson said.
The Hawks have struggled when facing some of the league's better teams. They've lost three straight against opponents with winning records, falling to 5-11 in such games - with eight of the defeats by double digits.
Johnson has averaged just 13.6 points in those 11 losses while shooting 38.9 percent. He's averaged 13.5 points against the Bulls this season, shooting 3 of 17 in the loss at Chicago.
While the Hawks will try to reverse that troubling trend, Chicago may not be too eager to play another afternoon game. The Bulls dropped to 1-4 in matinées after Saturday's tilt against the Nets, and they've averaged 88.8 points while losing four straight since defeating the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day.
Updated February 20, 2012