One player cant win a game alone, but if that one player is Derrick Rose, he certainly makes a big difference.
Roses return to the court Monday afternoon was a successful one, as the Bulls (26-8) bounced back from a lackluster outing Saturday and held off the Hawks (19-13), 90-79, at the United Center.
We just couldnt wait to play, said Carlos Boozer. Weve still got a long way to go, but we played much better than we did the other day.
Atlanta jumped out to a quick start, as All-Star snub Josh Smith (17 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) and shooting guard Willie Green got it going early, but after a quick timeout to regain focus, Tom Thibodeaus defense got back to its smothering ways.
The first few minutes, we didnt start off well and in the timeout, we kind of spoke about our defense a little bit, Luol Deng revealed. Once we played defense, we really got a lot of easy baskets.
After missing five consecutive games due to lower back spasms, Rose (23 points, six assists, five rebounds) wasted no time showing that he was the same as ever, knocking down two early triples and displaying his typically fearless nature on swashbuckling drives to the rim.
His explosion was there. His drives were there. Conditioning-wise, hes not where he normally is. But thats to be expected. Overall, Im very pleased. He said he felt real good out there, Thibodeau observed. The big thing was making sure he was 100 percent and pain-free. Then he had to be cleared medically. Then he had to feel very good about playing. We went step by step with him. He did his rehab. Then we did non-contact stuff. He didnt have problems with that. Then we went to contact and he didnt have problems with that. Who were playing didnt have anything to do with it. He felt he was 100 percent and could go. Well just go from here. He said he felt well out there.
You dont want him to change who he is. Thats the nature of the game. Guys are going to be aggressive and attack. Youre always concerned about health. But a guy could get hurt in practice or shootaround. Thats part of the game. Hes done a good job with his rehab. Our trainers have done a great job with him. We felt comfortable. As long as hes pain-free and feels 100 percent, we felt good with him playing. He met all the criteria that we were looking for him to meet before he played again. So were good with it.
Added Boozer: Thibs called a great 20-second timeout and Pooh just picked the pace up for all of us. Next thing you know, it was drive to the bucket, and-one, free throws, jump shot. It was awesome to watch. He did the same thing in second half. Came out, was super-aggressive and his scoring ability got everybody in the right spots. His poise down the stretch gave us a great calm out there.
Ronnie Brewer (13 points, six rebounds), who has struggled as of late, was productive at the outset, while Deng (10 points, eight rebounds, four assists), back in the role of secondary scorer and ballhandler after shouldering more of the load during Roses absence, also made a quick impact on both ends and Joakim Noah (16 rebounds) pounded the glass, as is his custom.
An emphasis on transition offense made easier with Roses return, though when he exited the contest, veteran point guard Mike James picked up right where he left off, tough driving finishes and all and efficient halfcourt offense propelled the Bulls to a 35-17 at the conclusion of the opening period.
James continued his solid play early in the second quarter, playing aggressively on the offensive end, though he had his hands full on defense with Chicago native and erstwhile Bull Jannero Pargo (19 points, five rebounds).
Still, the hosts maintained their double-digit edge over the Hawks by virtue of stout defense and dominant rebounding, most of which Noah was responsible for, as well as contributions from a variety of sources.
I thought his energy was good. He played extended minutes, made great effort. His defense was good. They were small at times, so that puts pressure on you. He made multiple efforts on several plays. That was encouraging, Thibodeau said of his center. Id like to see his offense come back around, get some easy baskets and I think he can do that.
Boozer chimed in: Jo was a monster tonight. Hes been a monster every night, really.
You saw how aggressive Jo was. He was awesome today.
Taj Gibson came off the bench to give the Bulls his usual boost of energy on the interior, while Deng Thibodeaus ironman didnt leave the court in the first half displayed his versatile all-around game, blanketing Hawks All-Star swingman Joe Johnson (12 points), helping out on the glass and distributing the ball.
Upon his return, Rose continued to dominate as a scorer, due to his familiar explosiveness off the dribble and much-improved outside touch, aiding the Bulls in taking a 55-37 advantage into the intermission.
The home teams huge cushion remained stable after the break, as a steady diet of Rose scoring and playmaking, a persistent effort on the boards and Carlos Boozers (16 points, five rebounds) emergence, highlighted by accurate mid-range shooting, led the way.
Although Johnson began to find his rhythm for Atlanta, the visitors didnt get much from his supporting cast, something assuredly exacerbated by the Bulls stingy defense.
The lead continued to balloon as the third period waned on and perhaps the Bulls, going with a mix of regulars and reserves, got a bit too comfortable because Pargo got hot and aided the guests in cutting the deficit to single digits with his outside marksmanship. The Englewood native and Robeson High School product knocked down a trio of long bombs to trim the Hawks deficit to 73-64 through three quarters of play.
Theyve got guys who can score. Theyve got guys whove proven they can score in this league and they made their run. Weve got to do a better job of defending those guys, Deng said about the Hawks, referring to his former teammate, Pargo, in particular. He played great for them. We all know JP. He can really score.
Thibodeau echoed: You have to play tough with a lead, especially with the three-point shot. A guy like Pargo, if you let him loose in a minute, he can make three threes. I know you think all leads are safe. But in a minute, three 3s can erase a 10-point lead. Its funny, every time I see him I think about it, particularly when Im coaching against him. Ive seen Tracy McGrady (Thibodeau coached the former All-Star, now with the Hawks, in Houston) score 13 points in 35 seconds. That always sits in your mind. You can never relax against a good NBA player.
In striking distance heading into the final stanza, Atlanta continued to be on the Bulls heels, even after Thibodeau reinserted the likes of Rose and Deng into the contest, though he kept third-stringer John Lucas III (10 points) in the game, pairing him with the reigning league MVP to utilize their speed in the backcourt and allowing Rose to play off the ball at times.
I feel we have four really good point guards. When Derrick plays, hes going to gobble up most of those minutes. C.J. is the backup. John and Mike, depending in the matchup, said Thibodeau. John has played terrific for us all year. Hes got a lot of confidence, not afraid to take the big shot. Defensively, he knows what were trying to get done.
Noah concurred: Those guys have been huge for us, especially Mike. Mike he just comes inwe havent seen him in three weeks and he gives us everything. Hes been huge for us, so were happy to have him back.
Said Lucas: I just bring energy, man. I love the game of basketball, so I just come out there and play hard every possession. I just want to win. I hate losing, so whatever I can contribute for us to win, whether its defensively, offensively or even in there just to foul somebody so we can put them to the free-throw line, Im with it.
My role is just to take pressure off Derrick. When you have two PGs in there, if theyre trying to pick him up full court, he doesnt get as tired. Now, you have somebody else bringing the ball up and also, I think theres more pick-and-rolls out there for us. Nobodys holding the ball, you have two ballhandlers who can create for others and get to the paint.
Lucas was effective as an instant-offense scorer, but the adjustments made no difference to the Hawks in the grand scheme of things, as they kept the pressure on the Bulls, though the game didnt get closer than a two-possession affair through the quarters midway mark.
As the contest headed into its stretch run, timely buckets from Lucas, Deng and Boozer gave the Bulls some breathing room and Rose's foul-line jumper with just over two minutes remaining gave the hosts their first double-digit cushion of the final frame.
It was all academic in the end, as Atlanta ran out of steam Johnson had to leave the game due to a knee injury and couldnt challenge the home team.
Were not in rhythm right now. Its real choppy. Part of it is not having the repetitions youd like to clean that up, your timing, spacing and screening. We have to correct that, remarked Thibodeau. These guys have played well together at times. Would you prefer to have the same group? Yes. But were capable of doing a lot better and weve shown that. We have to be careful not to be taking shortcuts. We have to execute, make the extra pass and do it for 48 minutes.
Deng concluded: We think were better than we played, but its a long season and at the end of the day, its about winning these games. Its not about how you won them. We want to play better.