These are Rose's Bulls
Young star proving capable of carrying his young team to elite status in East
CHICAGO -- It was fitting the first half of the season ended with Derrick Rose's first career triple-double, because Rose's maturation from young All-Star to serious MVP candidate has been the main storyline these past few months as the Bulls, too, have matured from plucky underdog to legit Eastern Conference contender.
The message is simple: This is Rose's team, no LeBrons or Carmelos need apply.
With 41 games remaining in the regular season, and a chance of an extra-long postseason, I'm going to propose we all make a promise to stop referring to Rose as humble, at least more than once a conversation.
Personally, I'm excising the word, in regard to Rose, from my vocabulary, and burying it deep down in the recesses of my mind, along with the "It was a tale of two halves" lead.
Because humility isn't the right word, it's humanity. It's not that Rose doesn't believe he is special. He knows he's awesome. He's just a nice guy. They do exist in the sporting world, even if some NBA stars spend more time with their special-edition sneakers in their mouths than on the floor.
"None of us need anybody around the league to do something for us to appreciate Derrick," Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said on ESPN 1000 on Saturday. "He's one of a kind."
And as Noah said last month of Rose's half-heartedly denial that he is a star player: "He might tell you guys that, but when he's dribbling that ball up the court, he knows what he's doing."
But he's not always on message. Like Noah said, Rose knows what he is, and what he can do.
So when Rose opened the season at media day by expressing his belief that he could be MVP, we were awed that he would say such a thing (in a good way), and mostly, we filed it away for later, because in everyone's mind, he still seemed to be in a second tier, behind Kobe, LeBron and a few others.
Now, it doesn't seem so silly, and Rose's proclamation seems like a realistic self-assessment of his ability.
And that's the lesson we learned in the first half. Rose is a superstar, a legit MVP-caliber player the likes of which this city hasn't seen since Michael Jordan. A team with championship aspirations has to have that kind of player, and Rose has proved he doesn't need to be anybody's second banana.
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"He's not backing down from nobody, and he's proving it every night," Noah said after the win over the Heat on Saturday. "I'm just really proud to be teammates with him."
Rose is averaging 24.5 points, eight assists and 4.5 rebounds. TNT's Charles Barkley called Rose the best point guard in the league on Monday night. Not second or third. Rose is slated to start his second All-Star Game, and players and coaches sing his praises nightly.
"He's having a full, all-around game, night in and night out," Bulls guard Ronnie Brewer said. "And we're winning."
Yes, they are.
At halftime, the Bulls are 28-13 with a 10½-game lead in the Central Division and a legitimate chance to get one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs. No one's sure how this team would do in a seven-game series with the top three teams, but one thing is certain: None of the other contenders is infallible.
And just like Rose has graduated to wunderkind status, when Noah returns, the Bulls should be treated the same way. Not as a plucky group seen as a good-vibes antidote to the Miami Heat, but rather as a team with high expectations that can be met.
Take the recent game against the LeBron-less Miami Heat this past Saturday. Rose dueled with fellow Chicagoan Dwyane Wade down the stretch. Rose had Mario Chalmers on him until the end, until Wade switched to defend Rose with the Bulls down two and scant seconds remaining.
"When a team's best player switches off on you, you want to take that shot," Rose said. "And I missed it."
But the ball bounced into the hands of Kyle Korver, who buried the go-ahead 3 in the Bulls' win. Rose, who scored 34 points and added eight assists, acknowledged it was more important for Korver to get going.
"I told him if that shot doesn't get him going, I don't know what will," Rose said.
He's not backing down from nobody, and he's proving it every night. I'm just really proud to be teammates with him.” -- Joakim Noah on Derrick Rose
Rose owes some of his MVP candidacy to his improved jumper (37.7 percent on 3-pointers, 45.2 percent at home), along with an increasing propensity to get to the line (or to get calls, depending on your point of view). Last year, he shot 26.7 percent on 3s, and averaged 4.3 free throw attempts per game, compared to six right now. Still, life as a marked man is difficult. Rose even got a technical this season for being demonstrative over a no-call.
"Now," he said, "teams are just double-teaming me. I remember teams would just be going under on me. They're not even doing that anymore. I can't get a jump shot off for nothing. At first, I tried to beat it with passing, surprise them by beating them by splitting, going around them. Just mix it up."
While purple prose-worthy columnists like myself love gushing over Rose, we're not so different from his teammates.
"I think the key is not to get caught standing there watching," Korver said of himself, not me. "Because it's really impressive. I'm like saying, 'wow,' to myself, three, four, five times a game.
"He's a really special player, and he can do a lot on his own, but if we're going to win a lot of games and win in the playoffs, we're going to need more than him," he added.
And there's the rub. While I have a propensity to say the Bulls can only go as far as Rose can take them, it's not quite true.
Rose has been remarkably consistent, averaging 24.5 points in wins and 24.3 in losses. His shooting percentage goes down only about 1.5 percent in losses, and most of his other stats see a small decline, but nothing major. He needs help, and for awhile, we weren't sure if he was going to get enough.
It's looking better of late, though, with Korver and Brewer providing some cushion off the bench and Luol Deng playing major minutes.
But you can whine about the 2-guard hole all you want, I'm not sure something's going to get done. Paxson said on our radio show that he and general manager Gar Forman are working the phones, as usual, but won't break up the core of the team to address that need. Plus, he said, he likes Keith Bogans' "professionalism."
The Bulls have won despite having their entire team together for a grand total of nine games, during most of which Noah was playing hurt. The Bulls rattled off a seven-game winning streak during that time, ending when an ailing Noah (14 points, 11.7 rebounds) had surgery on his thumb.
The Bulls are 12-5 in his absence, mostly against inferior competition, albeit with recent wins over Boston and Miami.
"I knew we'd be good," Brewer said. "But I didn't know we'd be this good with the injuries we've had."
Carlos Boozer missed the first 15 games with a hand injury, but the Bulls went 9-6 with him out, and since he's returned, he's shown he was worth the offseason investment, especially offensively. He's averaging 20.1 points on 56 percent shooting and 10.1 rebounds, though he will miss his second straight game on Tuesday against the Charlotte Bobcats.
The bench has been playing well of late. Korver's big 3 against Miami got him going against Memphis. He hit six 3-pointers and scored 22 points in the win over the Grizzlies.
Brewer, averaging fewer than seven points a game coming off the bench, has come through with big plays, including locking down Wade on a final shot attempt Saturday. Taj Gibson and Deng, who has turned into an iron man (knock on forest), have filled their roles to varying degrees of success, and Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik have been surprising fill-ins for Noah.
While talent ultimately separates the elite from the carrion in the NBA, coach Tom Thibodeau has impressed everyone with the way he's handled his first head-coaching job. Not to harp on former coach Vinny Del Negro, but it doesn't take long to see the difference of having an experienced, detail-oriented coach.
The Bulls are fourth in points allowed (93.5), first in opponents' field goal percentage (42.8) and rebounding differential (plus-4.3).
"Just grinding it, man, doing whatever it takes to win," Rose said. "Right now, I think we're getting into a groove where our defense is stepping up a little more. We're still not a 48-minute team, but we're trying to get there."
The players rave about Thibodeau's work ethic and preparation. This is the realization of his life's ambitions.
"I think sometimes that's why we feel disappointed when we go on the road and lose to a team that we're not supposed to lose to, because he takes the blame, puts it on himself," Brewer said. "We're the ones out there playing as an extension of him, and it's our job to go out there and play well every night."
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I don't think we'll get leaked stories about Paxson challenging Thibodeau to a fight anytime soon, and not just because the coach purportedly benches 300 pounds.
"We're very fortunate," Paxson said. "I think we've got a guy that will be with us for a long time. I'm really, really happy that we've got him. "
So, now that we've spent time reminiscing and pumping Rose's tires some more, let's ask the important question: How good will the Bulls be when Noah returns? Eastern-finals-good or second-round-bounce-good?
And the answer is
"We'll see," Rose said. "Nobody knows. We had Joakim [and Boozer] for a little bit, and he was still injured, and we were winning games. So when he comes back healthy, we'll see how far he's going to take us."
Whether it's Noah, Rose or Boozer leading the way this spring, the first half of the season has been like Rose's 3-point shot -- a pleasant surprise that augurs good feelings about the future.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.