With Derrick Rose, everything comes with a caveat, even an encouraging, complete offensive performance.
After his most efficient showing of the season, compiling 23 points with six assists on 9-for-18 shooting, one bad step brought the United Center crowd to a murmur when he came up lame after being fouled on a drive by Monta Ellis.
He tried to shake off the left ankle sprain, staying in the game for the next two possessions, but soon went to the bench and to the locker room for the final five minutes of the Bulls’ 96-95 win over the Indiana Pacers.
He walked to the locker room under his own power, showing an evident but not heavy limp. And all could’ve been lost considering the air had been sucked from the Madhouse, feeling more like a sad house until Jimmy Butler stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Butler had been chasing around a red-hot Paul George for most of the night, and with 5.1 seconds left George had a chance to complete a late comeback with a fadeaway jumper at the free-throw line.
But George couldn’t increase his 27-point night, due to Butler’s outstretched arm that disrupted the last chance for the Pacers, leaving George on the floor complaining and frustrated, sealing the Bulls’ win.
“Just knowing where it’s coming,” Butler said. “PG’s a hell of a player, a tough guard for anybody in this league. I was right there to contest it.”
Butler, in the argument with George and Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio) for the best two-way player in the game not named LeBron James, didn’t necessarily win the individual battle with George, as George added seven rebounds and five assists to his ledger compared to Butler’s 17 points, four assists and three rebounds.
“Paul made a strong move into the lane and made a great move to get open,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Butler also made a great play defensively. I don’t think there was a foul, he just made a good defensive play."
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Butler did hit a late jumper to put the Bulls up three with 1:23 left, temporarily holding off the late charge when the Bulls’ free-flowing offense slowed to a crawl late, scoring just 17 in the fourth.
Making just 20 of 32 free throws contributed to the struggles, as well as Rose’s absence.
“We got stagnant,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We had some time of possession errors. I thought our flow was good all night, we had good pace. Just those last eight minutes we shut it down from the paint. We have to push out the lead and continue to do that.”
Rose’s best all-around performance of the season buoyed the Bulls to an early 13-point lead, as he made both of his 3-point attempts, his last in the fourth quarter when the Bulls were reeling.
“His tempo and his shot was really good,” Hoiberg said. “You could tell that first 3 was going in as soon as it left his hands. He’ll keep getting in better shape. I thought he played terrific.”
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Rose was the key to the high-octane, efficient offense, and he displayed his most efficient basketball of the season. He played fast but under control, got to his sweet spots and followed a trend he began in last spring’s playoffs, using the glass on mid-range shots.
After dominating the game early, taking a 13-point lead due to Rose’s aggressiveness in the first quarter, the Pacers climbed back into the game, mostly due to the shooting of C.J. Miles and George.
Miles hit five triples on the way to 19 points, leaving Hoiberg no choice but to sit Nikola Mirotic, Miles' primary defender, after just 19 minutes.
It left a bit of a hole offensively as the game evolved late, but the defense played off some muscle memory when it counted.
“It was a dogfight,” said Taj Gibson (nine points, 11 rebounds), the only player to play the entire fourth quarter on either side. “We had a lot of plays on offense we usually make. A couple of ins and outs, that didn’t deter from my defense. We got some tough stops late, and that’s the ball game.”
The Bulls shot just 32.5 percent in the second half, and were out-rebounded by the smaller Pacers, 26-23, in that span, all playing a part in the comeback along with George and Ellis catching fire. Each scored 14 after the half, and Ellis finished with 20.
But even Rose’s minor injury couldn’t dampen the optimistic spirit afterwards, as the Bulls reminded themselves they still have a defensive mindset that won’t disappear overnight.