Bulls win an ensemble performance
Thomas, Noah shine on Bulls ' opening night
CHICAGO -- We came for the Derrick Rose Show, all 20,000 (and change) of us. We wanted to see the evolution of a superstar, the hometown kid made really, really good.
What we got was a clinic in offensive rebounding and balanced scoring.
They don't base marketing campaigns on tip-ins, putbacks and extra passes. But you do win basketball games that way. This Bulls team, with no defined go-to scorer, seems built to win that way.
The Bulls out-muscled a sleepy San Antonio Spurs team in a 92-85 win to open the regular season, picking up 15 offensive rebounds, nine blocked shots and at one point, a 19-0 edge in second-half points.
"We gotta be relentless," said Bulls forward Tyrus Thomas. "That's what we've got to do. We did a good job of that tonight. We have to continue that, carry on."
The sellout crowd saw spurts of Rose in slow bloom. A reverse layup here, a jumper there. He didn't have his burst, still getting his sore right foot in shape. So it wasn't a show, per se. More like a digital short. He had at least two moves that shook the crowd into an "ooh and aah" frenzy: an athletic layup in the first half and a nasty ankle-breaking reverse at the foul line that shook Tony Parker and resulted in two free throws.
Rose was rusty, but still good -- 13 points, seven assists and seven rebounds -- and he didn't need to be The Show. This was an ensemble performance.
Six players scored in double figures, led by Luol Deng's 17 and Kirk Hinrich's 14. Thomas scored 13, 10 in the third quarter, and Joakim Noah had 10 points and 10 rebounds. John Salmons had a horrific 3-for-15 night, but still scored 10.
"We're ballplayers on this team," Rose said. "No matter what, we've got a bunch of winners on this team. We just want to win, no matter who scores the points or whatever. Our biggest thing is winning."
In case you missed it, this team is all about winning. Don't worry, you'll hear more about it.
"I thought we played harder than them," Deng said. "Not taking anything away; they're a great team. But I thought tonight we really wanted the game."
Rose is readying for his star turn. He went to China this summer on an adidas tour with Dwight Howard. He's part of a new marketing campaign for the shoe giant, dubbed "It's on me." It's fitting, even if it's not quite true. Not yet.
The Bulls talked during the preseason about how no one player is expected to usurp Ben Gordon's go-to scorer role, and Thursday, that was true.
But the Bulls will have plenty of close games this season, 40-plus that come down to the last five minutes, at least.
And Rose is still the favorite to have the ball in his hands at deciding moments, of course, even if coach Vinny Del Negro disagreed with radio hosts this week on the subject. Last season, basketball boss John Paxson made sure his coach had Rose in at the end of the games. And by the end of the season, his "clutch" scoring numbers, as determined by 82games.com, were third-best on the team (29.9 points, per 48 minutes of "crunch" time, defined by the last five minutes of games when neither team is up more than five points), behind Gordon and Salmons.
This game never got to that point. The Bulls had a one-point lead at the half, thanks to a Hinrich 3, which came off a Deng rebound. Then they took control in the third, thanks to a balanced effort from the frontcourt.
The Bulls took a 53-52 lead on a Noah tip with 8:39 to go and never trailed again. During that 23-12 run, the forwards scored 18 points. Thomas had six, Noah, Deng and Brad Miller had four apiece.
"Everybody had their moments," said Thomas, who got hot taking those 18-footers he loves so much. "Kirk heated up at one point, John heated up. In the third quarter, I kind of took over with the scoring load. We have to continue to be a team. As long as no one starts getting selfish, and everybody's main focus and main goal is winning, we'll be fine."
Playing a Spurs team on the second game of a back-to-back, the Bulls had a 52-44 rebounding advantage with seven players getting five or more boards. Deng had nine rebounds in a triumphant regular-season return from a stress fracture in his leg last season.
"We play well together," Deng said. "We share the ball real well. I think we're going to see this a lot, where a lot of guys are in double figures."
Enough about parity; what about Rose, Luol?
"He's one of my favorite players," Deng said. "Not just athletically, but he really reads the game real well, finding guys and everything. The team fits really well and it starts with him, and he does a good job of finding everybody and penetrating."
Rose wasn't made a captain -- that honor is split between three vets, Deng, Hinrich and Lindsey Hunter -- but more and more, the team is taking on his identity: young, aggressive and humble. Rose said the Bulls have a "comfortable environment" right now. It showed on the court. And Deng said it's not just lip service, either.
"I feel like we have a great group of guys that care about winning," Deng said. "I've said it before, but I couldn't really say that the last few years."
Nothing makes guys talk about how much they care about winning than winning. For one night at least, the Bulls are winners, undefeated, and they seem to like the idea.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.