Bulls headed home with a Rosy glow


Dec 31

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Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likened it to heavyweights exchanging gasp inducing blows. Joakim Noah called it one of the best performances he’s ever participated in. Luol Deng marveled it was the Derrick Rose show.

Rose? With “MVP, MVP” chants raining down on him despite it being the Los Angeles Clippers home opener Friday and a mostly spectacular game from Blake Griffin, the Bulls young star shrugged, “Just wanted to win. That was the biggest thing.”

But in leading the Bulls to a 114-101 victory over the Clippers and concluding a 3-1 Western Conference trip, Rose not only had 29 points on just 14 shots with 16 assists and eight rebounds, he dominated the player many in the NBA regard as the league’s top point guard, Chris Paul.

Paul was pretty darned good on his own with 15 points, 14 assists and four steals. Yet, that’s what made Rose’s game even more remarkable. Paul almost didn’t matter despite a massive stat line as Rose’s defense often thwarted Paul and Rose helped the Bulls pull away in the fourth quarter with 12 points, five rebounds and four assists.

“We’re a way, way better offensive team this year knowing guys don’t need a pick and roll,” said Rose. “Lu, Rip, Booz. Guys can go out and score the ball. Me attacking opens everything up for everyone else. The first game (win over the Lakers on Rose’s last second floater), I was on the perimeter, settling for jump shots. The Golden State game was like that, too. Since then I’m pushing the ball, trying to get to the line (10 of 11 Friday). I had to get a rhythm and it’s coming back to me.

“Fun, fun, fun,” Rose said about playing Paul, against whom he’s never lost. “It’s a challenge, especially when you are out there on an island (defensively). The crowd gets into it. That’s what you live for. I’m taking the challenge. It’s fun. You’ve got to show no fear.”

After last season’s climb to the Eastern Conference finals, much of the discussion around the Bulls this season with the addition of Richard Hamilton is whether the Bulls can win a championship, get by Miami, if they are good enough.

This trip, and the closing game, the second back to back on the team’s longest trip of the season west of the Central time zone shows why that is conceivable.

The Bulls got all around performances with Noah and Deng each scoring 19 and Richard Hamilton 16. Plus, the Bulls got another good shooting game from Ronnie Brewer, perfect for the second straight game, and Kyle Korver with another pair of threes, again in short minutes.

Yes, Griffin had 34 points and 13 rebounds and DeAndre Jordan, the only player in the NBA last season not to score outside the lane, added another five dunks, most on lobs. The Clippers put on a good show as well.

But the Bulls remained relentless, moving from a 77-77 tie with just over two minutes left in the third quarter to inexorably pulling away in the fourth as the Clippers, especially Griffin now shooting mostly jumpers instead of jumping over the Bulls, sputtered to a stall. They were reaching and fouling as the Bulls continued to drive at them, the Bulls 14-7 run to open the fourth including eight free throws and dagger threes from Brewer and Deng.

You might make the case the Clippers have a more talented starting team with Paul, Chauncey Billups, who was out with a sore groin, Griffin and Caron Butler, whom the Bulls tried unsuccessfully to recruit, The Bulls certainly don’t match the three Miami stars. But what they do have is depth and size to complement one of the game’s few elite players.

It’s the sort of formula that Hamilton, coming off his second strong 16-point game, was familiar with in Detroit with a championship and back to back Finals.

“This is what it’s all about,” said Hamilton. “In order to win, especially late and in the playoffs, you’ve got to share the ball (29 Bulls assists on 39 field goals after 25 assists against the Kings), have eachother’s backs, make things easier for one another. These are the things that win in the playoffs.”

Yes, talent matters, but you don’t need all of it if you are a team.

“The thing I love about our team is our depth,” said Thibodeau. “We have great team spirit. Our starters on the bench cheering the bench guys on. When the starters are out there the bench guys are cheering them on. I love our team spirit.”

And it certainly was a spirited game with a rollicking Clippers start that had Griffin exploding with a two handed slam on a drive past a collapsing Noah, an inside move and a Mo Williams three for a fast 7-0 lead and Bulls timeout less than two minutes in. But this Bulls team doesn’t panic. It doesn’t preen, certainly not like Griffin, who did some chest pounding and barking after a dunk even though his team had fallen behind by 13.

He’ll learn. He’s an emotional player often too engaged with the officials, and he did get one technical for his advice to an official. The Bulls just regroup, examine the game and play. Although he acknowledges he’s quiet on the court as well as off, it’s that attitude of Rose’s that carries forward with this Bulls team. There have been times in the past coaches have complained of a lack of leadership because the personalities were to non confrontational. They still are. But Deng said after the stinging loss to the Warriors the players got together to discuss why it happened and why it wouldn’t again.

Just pros punching in.

“The Golden State game we felt our defense was not good enough,” Deng said. “They played well. We had a team talk to tie up our defense. The last two games we did not want to win with offense. We’ve got guys who can score. To really be the team we want to be it has to be defense night in and night out. It was the lack of defense energy. We can tell we were not there.”

The Clippers did shoot 51.3 percent and other than the rebounding, a Bulls 45-31 margin, Thibodeau said the Bulls have to improve defensively “from A to Z.”

But Rose was terrific defending Paul, as committed as he’s ever been. He constantly shadowed Paul and took the tricky All Star’s best moves and continued to push him. Similarly with Noah, who battled the explosive Griffin until Griffin looked exhausted. But it was hardly just player against player.

The Bulls gave Griffin a series of different looks and it seemed to weaken him by the end when the Bulls pulled away. There was Noah’s activity, which got him 10 free throws as well, but also a bit of a changeup. Griffin most likes to fake right from the left block and spin baseline in a version of Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake move. It’s very impressive. Usually the Bulls are a deny middle defense, forcing players baseline to help. But they started out shading Griffin to go to the middle toward help, and then after halftime appeared to switch it up and bring the help baseline. Although Griffin had big numbers, he couldn’t make the big fourth quarter push as he settled more on the outside for jumpers, hardly his strength. And the Bulls went on to lead by 15 with six minutes left before the Clippers closed with some meaningless lob baskets.

Even with that booming Clippers’ start, the Bulls never flinched and with Rose closing strong after a solid Hamilton opening the Bulls took a 29-28 lead after one quarter.

“Derrick is just a handful and we all know that,” sighed Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. “I didn’t think we ganged up on him enough. He got too many free throws, but he also hit some tough shots in the fourth quarter, stepping behind the line and hitting some threes. And when he does that, it puts a lot more pressure on you. The guy we (also) struggled with, Richard Hamilton, got going on us. Rip gave them a big boost tonight and everyone fed off that.”

Hamilton did do a good job finding open spaces in the offense for his shot as well as making some nice passes for scores. His increasing time has been limiting Brewer, who is making the most of his with some solid shooting. I asked him if he thought he’d be invited to the three point contest after not having missed one the last two games. He doesn’t get my sense of humor. But teams have been playing Brewer more for those baseline cuts after his interior screening for Boozer, and to Brewer’s credit he’s worked on his shot and found open spaces.

“There’s a lot of focus with this team on Lu, Booz. There are lots of opportunities where I can shoot the ball,” said Brewer. “D. Rose is finding me and I have to knock them down.”

Rose is finding a lot of teammates as he’s averaging more than nine assists and said he did put his teammates on notice.

“It makes me feel good knowing that I have shooters,” said Rose. “Guys are knocking down shots: Booz’s hitting shots, Ronnie. All my shooters, Rip, Luol, everybody was hitting the shots they were supposed to hit. I always tell them that’s one thing that’s different this year. You have to be able to hit open shots. We have a lot of confidence in them.”

Thibodeau obviously wanted this one for the best early season Bulls Western trip since 1997. Both Deng and Rose basically played the entire second half (Rose out just the last 40 seconds), and the team continued to run out at every opportunity early. Hamilton scored early after a Paul miss and Noah after a Griffin miss.

Paul didn’t shoot much early, preferring to seek out lobs while the Bulls pounded the Clippers on the boards for second and third shots, but couldn’t shake them until an 8-0 run to close the first half for a 55-50 Bulls’ edge.

By now Paul began to respond, and it was on with Rose.

Rose, untypical of most top stars of the game, chats with reporters before games at his locker. It is rare anymore even for some journeymen. Rose is unique, certainly among stars, in not putting that sign out that he is special. He lets his game say that. Anyway, the subject came up of his missed free throw back home to cost a game against the Clippers last year

“I remember everything,” said Rose. “When I play, I’m a quiet guy. I try to think of things to get me going and I definitely remember that. I hold grudges. I’m quiet, so I have to look for things to get me going.”

And Paul is one of them. He’s the guy for USA Basketball, the point guard, a role Rose would never say he wants but you know he’d love to be there in 2012 for the U.S. Perhaps a little statement there as well.

“The last two games, Derrick’s been very aggressive and the team has played with a lot more force offensively,” said Thibodeau. “We have to use that same force defensively to be at the point where we want to be at. What I liked is he (Rose) did everything. Chris Paul is as toug a matchup as you’ll get. It’s like two heavyweights going at it. Punch after punch.”

It was great theater for Hollywood, where the Bulls swept the two Los Angeles teams in less than a week. Paul began to drive, shooting his pull up and finding cutters. Rose fought him brilliantly, denying Paul his alleys as much as possible, bumping up against him with his stronger upper body. Meanwhile, Rose hit Paul with killer crossovers, turning the corners so fast Paul could do nothing but signal from behind and pulling up for effortless threes, three of four as it became too much for the home team.

“It was great,” said Deng with sort of a sigh as if to note this greatness is routine to us. “I see him do that all the time. Tonight was one of his better games. He controlled the game. He got the crowd into it. It was his show tonight.”

And as the Clippers grappled to hang on in the fourth, Rose walked into a pair of seemingly effortless threes and hit all six of his free throw attempts, fouled repeatedly as he blew past Paul and into the defense.

Look, Paul is the measuring stick for point guards, to many, the guy who gets inside your defense, the magician with the ball, the gold standard of classic point guards. And Rose simply made him seem irrelevant.

“To see what Derrick did was probably one of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of,” said Noah. “The way he competed against Chris Paul was pretty crazy. Pretty inspiring.

“The NBA is such a roller coaster,” Noah added. “One day you feel on top of the world beating the Lakers. The next night you lose to Golden State. It’s all about bouncing back and having the mindset to get better every day. We know we have a ways to go, but it definitely was a good win for us.”

So, Happy New Year. It starts again in 2012 on Sunday back in the United Center for the first time this season. The Bulls seem ready to continue the show.

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