Bulls stun Lakers at buzzer


Dec 25

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There’s always been that mythical torch of excellence supposedly passed around in relay form from one great, exciting player to the player from the next era, from Wilt to Kareem, from Dr. J. to Michael, from Kobe to… Derrick Rose?

Kobe Bryant hugs Derrick Rose

And so it may well have been Christmas Day in Los Angeles with the Bulls trailing by 11 with less than four minutes to go. Rose gathered his players, clearly now the leader, and said they’d been there before and they’d done this before, to just go out and win the game.

“I told them that we’ve been in this situation before,” Rose related afterward. “They’re (Lakers) a new team, they have new players, new system. I said that they haven’t been in that circumstance yet. Thank god we got a great couple of steals, a great couple of plays and we won the game.”

And a remarkable win and game it was with the Bulls’ unlikely 88-87 victory with Rose hitting a driving floater for the winning basket with 4.8 seconds left after he and Joakim Noah forced Bryant into a turnover, and the Bulls defense with Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng with the block from behind denying Bryant at the basket to conclude the most improbable of victories.

Bryant led all scorers with 28 points. But it was Rose with 22, Deng with 21, including a game high nine in the fourth quarter, and a stiff defensive interior finally standing up in carrying the Bulls to a breathless 1-0 beginning.

“It’s one big shot after the next,” marveled Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who delivered a knockout punch into the air as Deng finished off Bryant’s final attempt and Bulls players exulted. “It’s been that way all last year and starting this year. He’s something.”

Sure, Rose is the reigning MVP, though he still seems to get lost in the discussion of the game’s elite. He’s likely to ease back his game some this season with the addition of Richard Hamilton, who struggled in a foul-plagued Bulls debut, and increased maturity around him.

But Rose has moved from the shy, talented kid to the man ready to lead.

“I never had a doubt,” said Rose. “Doubt never came into my mind. If there’s any time on the clock, unless we’re down 100 points, I’m automatically thinking we can win this game. You’ve got to put your belief in your teammates. My teammates had that belief and thank god we came out and won that game.”

It seemed most unlikely, especially the way the Bulls played after leading 56-49 at halftime. They fell into extra dribbling, standing around and shooting long jumpers, failing to get to the free throw line for more than a quarter and watching the Lakers outhustle them and take away the game, a game that seemed lost with minutes left, less for the margin but more for the way the Bulls were playing. It was looking like a disappointing holiday against a Lakers team without suspended Andrew Bynum and traded Lamar Odom.

Rose began the surge with a driving score and Deng, who had a strong finish, ran out after another of Bryant’s eight turnovers. The Lakers’ star was playing with a fractured wrist, and while his shot looked good he did have trouble handling the ball.

Ronnie Brewer, playing the hard minutes for Hamilton, hit a hesitating jumper with about three minutes left to bring the Bulls within 82-77. But Steve Blake looked like he closed it with a three. Deng made a pair of free throws and after Pau Gasol missed a pair (the Lakers generously missed nine of 20), Carlos Boozer in a sold shooting effort converted a drive on a terrific Rose pass. The Bulls were four behind with 1:27 left.

Josh McRoberts then donated a pair of missed free throws, but the Lakers got the ball and Bryant gave them space with a short fadeaway for an 87-81 lead with 54.6 seconds left.

How did they lose this one?

“We just played hard, stepped up our intensity on the defensive end,” said Rose. “We always know defense is going to help us win games. For the whole game our defense wasn’t there. In spots, but in the end we played defense. We’ve been there.”

That’s right, Rose telling his teammates it’s the Lakers who would crack because the Bulls were the more experienced, more settled team.

Go, kid!

Deng shot short, but took advantage of the Lakers running out when the Bulls were shooting, counting on their own rebounding, and Deng got his own miss and scored and was fouled, a three point play to get the Bulls within 87-84 with 45.1 seconds left.

One possession game, as the TV guys say.

Bryant then missed and Deng was fouled, coolly making both free throws to put the Bulls behind 87-86 with 20.4 seconds left.

Foul? Yes and not. Thibodeau called for a trap on Bryant, who overreacted and passed with Joakim Noah and Rose coming at him and Deng scooped up the loose ball.

“Kobe did not think I was going to be that aggressive on the blitz,” said Noah with a broad, satisfied smile. “I got my hand on it. That was pretty good.”

Rose conceded he was surprised Bryant tried to pass out, and Deng credited Thibodeau, the first of two crucial times the coach’s voice would be in his head down the stretch.

“They were expecting us to foul,” said Deng. “Coach made a great call: Get one trap in and then after the pass out we’ll foul. Kobe was kind of expecting to get fouled and he held the ball a little bit. We were able to take away their guys and as soon as he passed it we got the steal.”

But now to score. Kobe couldn’t, so you go to the kid.

Rose got the ball on the left wing and crossed right where he threw up his favorite floater from nine feet for, shockingly, an 88-87 lead with 4.8 seconds left.

Timeout Lakers. Kobe time?

“I’ve been constantly shooting that floater, high school, college, and it’s something I added to my repertoire,” said Rose. “It’s something I’m used to if I get to my right hand. They let me get to my right hand and that’s how it got up.”

Deng defends Bryant

But there still was the matter of Bryant. You figured double to keep the ball out of his hands, which is awfully difficult. But when Bryant got the ball on top and began to size up Deng, Deng remembered last season and Carmelo Anthony hitting a winner over him and what Thibodeau had to say.

“I knew Kobe was going to get the ball,” said Deng. “I did not know where. I crowded him. He drove and our bigs were there. He hesitated and went to his fadeaway and I was able to get back in the play and (block the ball from behind).

“I remembered Carmelo beating me at the buzzer last year,” said Deng. “I remember coach saying I should have crowded him and made him drive and our bigs were there. I did not want to lose on a jump shot. He was going to have to make a tough shot over our bigs.”

Bryant couldn’t. Rose could. End game. Yes. New day? We’ll see, but it was quite the moment.

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