With a shot at the Eastern Conference's top seed on the line, the Chicago Bulls proved their worth for the conference crown, taking down the Boston Celtics with ease, 97-81, behind 30 points from Derrick Rose.
Is it a sign of things to come in a potential playoff series?
Our five writers discuss the five biggest takeaways from Thursday night's marquee matchup.
1. D-Rose is the presumptive MVP. Did this game prove he deserves it?
Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: One game will neither confirm nor deny anything, but Thursday certainly didn't hurt his candidacy. There was something for everyone; aesthetically pleasing contortions for die hards and casual fans alike, with an undeniable efficiency to fend off the Sons of the Statistical Revolution. He scored, dished, got to the line and was hardly the defensive weak link he's purported to be. But forget all that. Rose has already won it. Fair or not, he won't prove if it was deserved until the postseason.
Hayes Davenport, Celtics Hub: The case against Rose feels shakier than ever after tonight, but I still say no. Rose's volume of shots is the only thing that distinguishes him from the league's other elite point guards. The Bulls won the East with their defense, and Rose doesn't help them much there, so Howard's my pick. Do your worst, Derrick Rose Internet Attack Squad.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: This season proves he deserved it. Rose may be the toughest player to guard in the NBA. He's faster than his opponent, he finishes well, and he has become a better shooter. Oh, and he is the best player on the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Matt McHale, By the Horns: If I believed in one-game samples, it would be hard to argue against this one: game highs in points (30), assists (eight), free throws (10-for-10) and plus-minus (+24) with five rebounds, two steals and an efficient shooting night (9-for-16). Mind you, the Celtics rank second in defensive efficiency and Rajon Rondo was on the All Defense First Team last season.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: It proves he'll win it. Rose's MVP résumé is bolstered most by the Bulls' meteoric rise this season, from the No. 8 seed in 2009-10 to a title favorite, and a win in which he scores 30 points to virtually lock up the East's No. 1 seed is probably enough to sway any undecided voters ... even if Chicago's D has been its true catalyst.
2. What does this game tell you about a potential Celtics-Bulls East finals?
Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Big Three better be bigger than ever. Their new teammates aren't performing as expected -- well, as Danny Ainge expected -- and who knows what Shaq will bring back. They know this is their last best chance and who knows if they'll have enough? Oh, and it'd be nice if Rajon Rondo could make a jump shot or two.
Hayes Davenport, Celtics Hub: A lot, and not much of it is good for the Celtics. The Bulls have a defensive scheme in place that frustrates the C's ball movement, so they're already where they need to be. Having Shaq underneath helps deter Rose from the rim, but there's really no stopping him unless Rondo finally tracks down the guy who stole his defensive intensity.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Nothing. The game may have had a playoff feel to it with the physical play and overall chippy-ness, but the playoffs are always a different animal. Didn't everyone think Cleveland was a lock to come out of the East last season?
Matt McHale, By the Horns: Ultimately, this was one regular-season game, and it won't mean anything come playoff time. Remember: The Celtics lost seven of their last 10 regular-season games in 2009-10 and nearly won Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. I know some people are scoffing at that notion right now. They were scoffing at it last season, too.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: That early 2000s Shaq better be warming up in the bullpen. The Celtics were pulverized in the post Thursday night, and 20 minutes a game from a past-his-prime, 39-year-old center with only 37 games under his belt isn't likely to tilt the scales in a seven-game series ... or provide the answer to what has ailed Rajon Rondo in the season's second half.
3. What should be Chicago's biggest concern going into the postseason?
Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: Despite their impressive showings against Miami and Boston during the regular season, we should expect these playoff series to be much tighter. One game could make all of the difference and if that game is one in which Rose can't find the mark or get to the line, the Rosenaires have to be ready to step up. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, huh?
Hayes Davenport, Celtics Hub: Orlando. The Chicago offensive attack takes place at the rim, and the guy Orlando has under it is, like, huge. Other than that, this is not a team with many concerns other than a freak Carlos Boozer injury, and that's going to happen eventually no matter what anyone does.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Bulls' lack of experience is their biggest concern. So far they are the best Eastern Conference team in the regular season, which is only good for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Matt McHale, By the Horns: The Bulls play hard every single night, and it seems like they've gotten maximum returns on their investment of effort, intensity and talent. But there are two things we don't know about them: (1) Will their lack of postseason experience hurt them and (2) do they have a "playoff gear" that will allow them to succeed at the highest level?
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: The unknown. Only three players (Deng, Noah, Rose) remain from the Bulls team that took the C's to seven games two years ago, and Deng alone can say that he's seen the second round of the playoffs in a Chicago uniform. The fact that a 54-win Heat team is still tinkering with lineups and may not have reached its full potential this season is also a very scary proposition.
4. Would the Heat give the Celtics or Bulls more trouble in the playoffs?
Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Bulls. Chicago's defense would be put to the test in a seven-game series with LeBron and Wade. Each of them are capable of winning a game "by themselves," and heaven help the team that has to deal with them if they're both hot on the same night. The Bulls shine as a defensive unit, but they don't have a wing defender of Paul Pierce's mold capable of corralling James.
Hayes Davenport, Celtics Hub: This one is close, but I'll say the Bulls. The Heat would have won two games against Chicago if (1) LeBron hadn't sat one and (2) Bosh hadn't gone 1-of-18 in the other. LeBron's not missing any playoff games, and that Bosh performance, while good for the soul, is not likely to happen again.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Despite having the 3-0 edge on the Heat this season, the answer has to be the Celtics. The Bulls have been far more consistent on both ends of the floor lately and there is no evidence to suggest that will change come playoff time.
Matt McHale, By the Horns: The Heat have two of the top five players in the world. They can give any team trouble. That said, Chicago is clicking, Boston is not. If Shaq can't get healthy, if Doc Rivers can't mix this witch's brew of players into some magic sauce, if the Celtics can't get their chemistry problems solved, they're the more vulnerable team.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Both appear to have a better chance against Miami than any other teams in the league, including the reigning champs, seeing that none of the Heat's 54 wins this season have come against either despite six stabs at them. But thanks to a Boston midseason trade that becomes more befuddling by the day, the Heat's big brother no longer seems as imposing as this red-hot Bulls team. Especially when you figure a late-season growth spurt in Wade-LeBron synergy can only help the former finally snap out of his funk against the C's.
5. Are the Bulls now the favorites to win the NBA title?
Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: No. The argument for Rose's MVP candidacy is that he's carried a subpar offense and it's probably true. But then by that measure, should we expect him to single-handedly carve up Boston/Miami and Los Angeles? Each have equally stalwart defenses with a bevy of offensive options. Methinks he'll have to settle for just one trophy this year.
Hayes Davenport, Celtics Hub: The league probably hopes so. A Chicago championship would help the NBA ride out the wave of this awesome regular season, because the Bulls are basically the only contender that most people don't hate. But because the Heat are uniquely suited to handle the Bulls and better than any West team, I'd begrudgingly toss them the "favorite" tag.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: No. The Bulls just haven't been there. More importantly, their best player has yet to win a playoff series. The Lakers have won back-to-back championships, so if any team has an edge it has to be them.
Matt McHale, By the Horns: Here are this season's championship contenders: Bulls, Celtics, Heat, Lakers, Spurs. Period. And, honestly, we could sit down and construct strong (or at least reasonably solid) arguments for any of those five teams. To me, that means there isn't an odds-on title favorite right now.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: In the East, maybe. But not even three straight losses two weeks away from the postseason can diminish the convincingness of the Lakers' post-All-Star break tear.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Myles Brown, Hayes Davenport, Brendan Jackson and Matt McHale are writers for the TrueHoop Network.