Derrick Rose deals the final blow
The Bulls ran into a feisty Pacers squad but their MVP candidate muscled them to a win
While Thomas, a veteran of many playoff wars, including possibly the Trojan and Peloponnesian varieties, nearly knocked out Pacers forward Tyler Hansborough late in the third quarter, it was Rose who dealt the killing blows at the end of Saturday's game.
Rose certainly earned his MVP chants in a wild playoff opener against the Indiana Pacers. Along the way, he proved, as if anyone had a doubt, that he can handle some punishment, and that he can dish out twice as much as well.
Despite a faulty jumper, Rose scored a playoff career high thanks to his 19-of-21 free throw performance, including the final two to ice a 104-99 comeback win in front of a raucous United Center crowd. Nineteen of 21? It's that time of the year: D-Rose Tax Day.
"Twenty-one free throws, that's a lot of free throws," Pacers forward Danny Granger said. "We have to figure out a way to keep him out of the lane."
Rose held true to his promise on Friday that this series would come down to him attacking and drawing fouls. Thankfully, it didn't come down to him making long-range shots, because he missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. He hit only two shots from 10 feet or longer, but he was nearly perfect inside.
While his jumper became a legitimate asset this season, Rose has a fat W2 form because of those acrobatic trips through the lane. I don't know who his accountant is, but there's no chance he's get any amortization on that crossover.
In the end, Rose sent a message to the rest of the league. He will continue to get the calls an MVP favorite deserves, and he won't waste them. And he's not afraid to get in an opponent's face, like he did with Jeff Foster in the first half.
"If anything, you're not going to get punked," Rose said. "I know I'm quiet, but that doesn't mean anything. When you're out there, if you think it's a dirty play you gotta say something. If you don't, they're going to continue to do it."
While it would be disingenuous to say the Pacers are the bullies of this series, Rose made a point that should resonate. He and the Bulls feel they deserve their No. 1 seed, and the expectations that come with it.
Is this the kind of hard-fought game Rose and the Bulls needed to kick-start what could be two months of playoff games?
"No," Rose said, laughing. "If anything, I would love a blowout game. We definitely didn't want a game like this in the first game."
But this is the game they got and as long as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has a video screen and a larynx, they will learn from their mistakes. The Bulls didn't lead until there were 48 seconds left in the game, but they still won, despite enough defensive breakdowns to make Thibodeau's head explode.
The Pacers were understandably defiant in the loss, but Granger put the game in a perspective that many of his NBA brethren could surely understand.
"It's like a crazy stalker ex-girlfriend," Granger said of Rose and the Bulls. "Every time you tell her you don't want to talk to her, she shows up at your door again. We kept making runs, one after another, and they kept coming back."
If the Bulls are the stalker ex, Rose is Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction."
He attacked the Pacers' interior all game, and he hit 10 of 14 two-point field goals and added six assists and six rebounds.
But the Bulls, who closed the season by winning 21 of 23, including the last nine in a row, tightened it up when it counted.
After getting burned over and over by jumpers and hustle plays, the Bulls closed with a 16-1 run. Indiana hit 50.8 percent of its shots through three quarters, including several run-killers, but shot only 34.8 percent in the fourth. While the closing kick was good, this was a three-quarter defensive disaster.
In related news, Thibodeau started Sunday's practice 15 minutes after Saturday's game ended.
"We did not help, we did not sink down, we did not block out, and they got easy scores," he said.
I'm sure he'll have more to say at practice, and most of it won't be quotable.
The Pacers, buoyed by their jump-shooting bigs and genuine overabundance of "scrap," were up 98-88 with 3:38 to play before the Bulls' stifling defense showed up and Rose took over.
Rose had seven points, two assists and two rebounds in that span, while Joakim Noah had four points, three rebounds and two consecutive blocks at the end of the game on Josh McRoberts.
Earlier this week, Granger made much-repeated headlines in Chicago for stating the obvious: The Bulls will go as far as their MVP takes them. If Rose's play Saturday follows Granger's Law, reserve your spot at Grant Park in June.
The Bulls were down 99-94 with two minutes to play when Rose drove for a bucket and got the "and-one" call. He looked toward his family's luxury suite and beat his chest with a look of defiance on his face. He hit his free throw, and on the Bulls' next possession he hit a face-melting spin move floater to make it 99-all.
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Rose often gets miscast as some emotionless killing machine. He is the Terminator, that's true, but he does like to let loose with a yell here and there. Unlike Carlos Boozer, who screams much better than he plays perimeter defense, it means more when it comes from Rose.
"It was a big play," Rose said. "I told you, it just comes. I don't plan anything. I thought it was a big play and that's what came out."
But that wasn't it. After tying the game, Rose got the rebound on Darren Collison's ensuing miss and took the ball down the floor. As he drove the lane from the right side, he found Kyle Korver camped to his left, and hit him with a perfect pass. Korver's 3 gave the Bulls their first lead. The Bulls, to a man, spend most postgames praising Rose. But they know he can't do this every game, right?
"We got to do a better job of giving him more help," Korver said. "We can't just go iso the whole game. It makes it really tough. He's going to wear down eventually. We want to keep playing for a while.
"At the same time, he's so good, it's like 'keep giving him the ball, give him the ball.' There's definitely a fine line in that and we have to find it."
Rose said he wasn't hurting from the physical game. He's seen harder fouls in his three years in the league. But he also wasn't basking in another round of ego massage.
"I was just trying to win a game," he said of his heroics. "[Today] it was me making shots and making plays. Whatever it takes to win, I'm going to do."
The Bulls are only up 1-0, and there's a lot more games to be played. But Rose performed just like he said he would. As his adidas commercials tell us, Rose doesn't lie.
I guess there's some truth in advertising, after all.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.