Piecing together a special season
Derrick Rose's supporting cast continues to come through for the Bulls when needed
But with the Big Man watching and Rose dishing instead of thrilling, the Chicago Bulls continued to soar.
With Jordan forgoing his typical United Center skybox seat to watch his Charlotte Bobcats from a floor seat next to Scottie Pippen, Rose had 13 assists in an "off" night, while Luol Deng led the team with 24 points in a 106-94 win.
The Bobcats had beaten Chicago both times this season, which caused the usually careful Rose to term this a "revenge game."
"If we come and play very aggressive and play with a lot of energy I think that that game should be very easy for us," Rose said at practice this week. He didn't have the typical "D-Rose" game, shooting 5-for-14 with six turnovers, though he redeemed himself by hitting 8 of 9 free throws.
So this win wasn't "very easy," even against a team on the second night of a back-to-back, but that's kind of the point.
The Bulls need to keep winning the tough games to build momentum after the All-Star break and into the postseason, because it's quite obvious this is a special team. Maybe not NBA Finals special, but good enough to make things interesting in the second round of the playoffs against Boston, Orlando or South Beach, I mean Miami.
The Bulls play host to the San Antonio Spurs, the presumptive best team in the league, on Thursday. We're past the point where we consider that a test game, right? After all, the Bulls have beaten the aforementioned three Eastern Conference teams, not to mention the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder and a number of other very good squads.
"We're trying to beat everybody," Carlos Boozer said. "Not the good teams, not the .500 teams. We're trying to beat everybody we play."
Chicago is 37-16 and 24-4 at home. Boozer is on the money.
With that goal in mind, Deng said the Bulls mostly want to beat the Spurs because it's the last game before the break. And anyway, the real test comes when Joakim Noah returns from injury, hopefully in Toronto to start the "second half."
"With our record, I think we've been tested all year," Deng said. "We haven't made any excuses. We've had guys down, but we've kept playing all year. I think we've gone through a lot where we've been tested. I think the big test is whether or not we get better when we have everyone back and we're at full strength."
This game was a nice example of how far the Bulls have come since their last long road trip. When the Bulls returned from a successful Circus Trip on Dec. 1, they got clobbered by the Orlando Magic 107-78. Now, the Bobcats aren't the Magic, but they have given the Bulls problems. No matter.
"We were focused and ready to win," said Boozer, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. "We had a great day of practice, and then today, we had a great shootaround."
With Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Gerald Henderson and Boris Diaw, the Bobcats present tough matchups and did a good job of trapping Rose and forcing the ball out of his hands. But the Bulls countered with some nice work from Deng and the second team, or as I like to call them, the "Asik Unit." This group looked sharp. Imagine how good it will be if Keith Bogans (nine points on three 3-pointers) gets shuffled down the lineup eventually? (OK, wishful thinking.)
"We're just real unselfish and we have the mentality to come in and play hard and play tough," Gibson said.
Rose gave the United Center only a couple "wow" moves, which is about five under his average, but he needs more nights off where he doesn't have to carry the load. Boozer wasn't fantastic either, but Deng showed why he continues to get more respect in his locker room and around the league than on any radio show or in any newspaper.
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Deng scored from everywhere, banging bodies in the post, hitting fadeaway jumpers, firing that mid-range shot he's all but perfected. He doesn't need to be an All-Star, like the most provincial among us declared, but in a lot of ways, he can be the guy that gets the Bulls past the second round.
And like Deng said about the team, he needs to keep getting better, even as he averages nearly 40 minutes a game.
I counted up 18 games the Bulls have played against top-tier competition so far this season (I included the New York Knicks, because they've beaten the Bulls twice and could very likely face them in the playoffs), and in those games, Deng has averaged 14.9 points, just under his 17.5 average. He's scored 20-plus three times and less than 10 four times.
Does he need to score more? At first, I thought "of course," but it's not that simple. It's not just about scoring either. The more I think about it, Deng just needs to keep being the so-called third option, always around and capable of anything.
"When you're winning and you do it every night, it just becomes a habit," Deng said. "Sometimes you just go out there and pick something to do to make your team win. And not just stats-wise, just the little things."
I bet the bald guy that sat at center court would agree.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.