- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Derrick Rose is fine.
He's finer than a physics-defying South Beach knockout.
Finer than Joakim Noah, who will be writing a check to the NBA, thanks to one angry word.
Rose is finer than the few remaining hairs on coach Tom Thibodeau's head after two straight losses.
Rose is frustrated, sure. Who wouldn't be in his situation? But he's not going to admit to showing fatigue from a grueling season of carrying the Chicago Bulls, at times, on his well-tattooed shoulders.
He hasn't lost his fast-twitch explosiveness or his rock-solid confidence. Just ask him.
"I'm fine, man," he said Monday afternoon. "Trust me. No excuses."
Then he flashed a toothy grin that is familiar only to those who cover him on a regular basis.
"Even I was tired, you know I wouldn't tell you," he said, laughing.
In the few times things have gone badly for him this postseason, Rose has stuck to a "no excuses" mantra. But he also hasn't had a reason to make excuses very often, not this season, anyway.
A few missed shots here, a couple of turnovers there. He is the MVP, after all, and the golden child of Chicago, not to mention the NBA.
But Rose finds himself at a season crossroads after two woeful fourth quarters that led to consecutive losses in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the Bulls' 96-85 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3 on Sunday night, Rose put up just two shots in the fourth and didn't take a free throw. He had three assists, including two early when the Bulls were in striking distance, but also committed two turnovers. The Heat took a three-point lead into the fourth and outscored the Bulls 28-20 to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
In Game 2, the Bulls scored just 10 points in the fourth and Rose missed all four shots he took, converting just a pair of free throws. The Bulls had it tied at 73-all before the Heat closed the game on a LeBron James-led 12-2 run.
Rose's salad days of the regular season are a distant memory, as they should be. But it's tough to forget how clutch he was "way back when."
For instance, he finished the season as the second-best "clutch" scorer in the league, according to 82games.com, averaging 47.8 points per 48 minutes in "clutch situations," which are defined as the last five minutes of regulation or overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points.
No one is exactly sure why Rose isn't dominating late in games right now, but it's not hard to guess. It has a lot to do with the quality of competition. Rose faced double-teams, blitzes, whatever, all season, but now he's facing long, athletic, focused players, led by the Heat's big three, who are taking turns helping out or guarding him.
I remember one particular fast-break opportunity in Game 3 in which Rose raced into the paint, only to find James in front of him. Rose pulled up, and the opportunity was lost.
"It's something I've been experiencing through the whole playoffs," Rose said of the extra attention. "Every series, people have been trying to do that, and I've found a way. I think tomorrow will be a different game."
With that in mind, Rose did have more success in Game 3 near the basket. He had trouble getting to the rim in the first two games of the series, including the Bulls' long-forgotten blowout win in Game 1. But he converted on four of seven attempts at the rim in Game 3 after hitting just three of five attempts in the first two games.
In the half-court offense, the Bulls have had trouble freeing him on pick-and-rolls and the like, so Rose agreed with a reporter's suggestion that they should run more isolation-style plays for him, be they on the top of the key or from a wing. In a perfect world, you put Luol Deng and Kyle Korver in the corners and Carlos Boozer in the low block to push help defenders off the ball, and Rose is off to the races.
"That would be great," Rose said. "I think like more step-ups, things like that, more isolation-type things instead of double-teaming all the time."
Thibodeau said he just wants to see Rose making smart passes out of double-teams that will lead to baskets.
But to get that kind of one-on-one game going, Rose's teammates have to command respect. So far in this series, the Bulls' field goal percentages have been, in order: 43.7, 34.1, 41.6. In their sole win, the Bulls hit 10 of 21 3-pointers. In the two losses, they've combined to hit eight of 32.
Noah and Korver, two key complementary scorers, have been all but nonexistent in that role, and Boozer is coming off his only high-scoring game of the series. I guess this is why everyone was wishing a 2-guard would land in the Bulls' lap for nothing.
"He's faced every possible defense all year long," Thibodeau said. "The big thing for us is we have to hit some shots to open things up for him. When he's in the open floor, he's very hard to guard. He's very difficult in pick-and-rolls, he'll find seams and hopefully he'll get going."
With so much on the line, Rose admitted that he and his teammates let the situation get the better of them in Game 3, worrying about foul calls and arguing with referees.
Rose has led with a stoic intensity that buttressed Thibodeau's Buddhist monk-like devotion to living in the present. Those days are gone, too. Now the Bulls have to cancel out the mounting pressure and about 19,000 screaming Heat fans.
"It's one thing to have a passion about the game," he said. "But when you start bringing emotions into the game, I think that's when you can really get in trouble."
The Bulls are in trouble, and there's no sense ignoring it. Can Rose lead them out of it? That's what we're waiting to see.
Rose hasn't disappointed this season, and Chicago hasn't lost three in a row. In Game 4, the former will decide whether the latter remains true.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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