CHICAGO -- So apparently all that business from Tom Thibodeau about Thursday night's showdown with San Antonio being no more important than a well-run practice drill, was, well, hard for even him to swallow.
The Bulls' coach revealed an alter ego he had managed to hide from even his players, pulling Derrick Rose into his office before the game and giving him the pep talk of all pep talks.
"He gave me a speech about being aggressive, a motivational speech," Rose said. "I love a coach where he's showing emotion, even before the game when it's just me and him talking. … I wanted to get up and yell with him but I kept quiet and tried to take that out on the court."
It is hard to believe Rose needed any extra inspiration, considering he was the one who openly challenged his Bulls teammates by calling the game "a measuring stick to see how good we are." But the most deserving candidate for MVP honors at the All-Star break responded with a career-high 42 points in leading the Bulls to a definitive 109-99 thumping of the Spurs.
Playing their 30th game without starting center Joakim Noah, the Bulls would appear to be past the need for measuring sticks as well, having now beaten every team among the league's so-called elite. And Rose, who has outplayed the likes of Deron Williams, Chris Paul and now Tony Parker, departs for Los Angeles and his first All-Star start with an added glimmer in his eye, a genuinely dangerous look for future opponents.
"We have a lot of confidence right now, knowing that we can beat some of the best teams in the NBA," Rose said after his 18-for-28, eight-assist and five-rebound performance. "We just have to keep it going. When we come back, we have to keep it focused. We have to work even harder. We're going to have a few days off and some guys are going to have the opportunity to have their bodies relax, but we've still got to go and try to win a championship."
Clearly, Rose is not of the mindset that the Bulls are still not quite ready to overtake the likes of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference. And now 22 games over .500 following Thursday's impressive showing against the club with the league's best record, the bar has to be raised as Noah prepares to return after the break.
"He has taken a monster leap this year," Popovich said of Rose. "What's really great about him is that he seems to love the pressure in putting his team on his back. He has the character and demeanor to do that. Superstars have that character and leadership gene.
"The Bulls are one of the top teams in the East, and Tom is a candidate for coach of the year."
Thibodeau stressed to Rose that if he played aggressively on both ends of the floor, the rest of the team would follow. Seems simple enough, but Rose took it literally and so did his teammates, seizing control of the game in the first quarter, building a 10-point lead in the second and never showing any serious signs of being threatened.
It was the 15th victory in the past 16 home games for the Bulls (25-4 at the United Center) as well as a nationally televised demonstration of just how dominant Rose has become.
"He knew how important this game was, and he just kept going and going," said Carlos Boozer, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds. "They couldn't stop him, and we told him not to stop. He just took over, and all we had to do was ride the D-Rose train."
That said, the Bulls brought the home crowd to its feet early in the fourth quarter and put a foot to the throats of the Spurs with Rose off the floor when Taj Gibson slammed home a rebound of an Omer Asik miss to take an 87-78 lead and force a San Antonio timeout.
Seconds after Rose returned from a 2½-minute absence, Deng drained a 3-pointer to give the Bulls a 12-point lead, four points better than when he left.
But it was Rose who put to rest any notions the Spurs might have had for a last-gasp rally by scoring the Bulls' final 10 points of the game in the last 3:21 and throwing in two rebounds for good measure.
"If we were still playing now, he'd still be going," Boozer marveled afterward.
Thibodeau, as all self-respecting coaches do, preached restraint.
"You cannot be short-sighted," he said. "You cannot be satisfied because there is a lot of work to be done. The really good teams continue to get better. … The statement tonight is that the guys did a good job getting ready to play."
Of course, it's going to be a little hard to believe him after Thursday's pregame display.
"When you've got a coach getting emotional like that, it's going to make you want to play hard, especially me," Rose said. "You can't be too nice as a coach; you have to have some meanness in you."
Had Rose ever seen that behavior in his coach before?
"Never," he said.
And why did Rose think Thibodeau decided to go that route?
"I don't know," Rose said, "but it worked. And as long as we're winning, I think he's going to continue to do it, so I have to get prepared for it."
Somehow, that doesn't seem like it will be much of a problem.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.