So, uh, those Grizzlies sure came to play, didn’t they?
After two ridiculous (and ridiculously fun) blowout wins in which they enjoyed 40-point leads, the Bulls walked into a buzz saw. Memphis was obviously fired up for this game and apparently not the least bit intimidated by Chicago’s 31-4 home record. With about four and a half minutes left in the first quarter, Mike Conley stole a bad pass by Carlos Boozer, sprinted the other way, and then dished the ball off to Tony Allen for an easy dunk that gave the Grizzlies a 20-11 lead.
Next thing you know, Boozer, Keith Bogans and Joakim Noah were all on the bench in favor of Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer and Kurt Thomas. Clearly, coach Tom Thibodeau was not happy with the team’s early defensive effort. Or their offensive effort. Or anything. The Bulls were being outhustled all over the floor.
Said Luol Deng: “I felt like they outworked us. I just felt like we have more talent in this team. And we made big plays at the end to win, but throughout the game I just thought they played harder. They got to the loose balls first. They’re a very good team and they really outworked us. And we got to recognize that.”
In retrospect, though, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Grizzlies are a top 10 defensive team (in terms of Defensive Rating) and, in the last 30 days, had beaten the Spurs, Mavericks (on the road), Thunder and Celtics (also on the road). The Griz aren’t pushovers…and they’re playing with a lot of swagger right now.
But so are the Bulls.
They fought back, thanks to the reserves, who wrested back control of the game after the starters came out sluggish. Thanks to Deng, who scored 16 of his 23 points during Chicago’s offensively-challenged first half, including back-to-back three-pointers late in the second quarter. Thanks to a dominant rebounding effort in which the Chicago outrebounded Memphis 45-32, including 18-8 on the offensive glass, which led to a 29-15 advantage in second-chance points for the Bullies.
And, of course, thanks to Derrick Rose.
Rose struggled with his shooting last night, which, unfortunately, has been happening a lot lately. Derrick went 6-for-22 from the field and 0-for-5 from downtown. Those are bad numbers, even if you mitigate them by pointing out that one of his missed treys was a forced buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter and another was a beat-the-shot-clock bailout with 51 seconds left in the fourth.
Still, Rose being Rose, he finished with game-highs in both points (24) and assists (7) to go along with his 7 rebounds (3 offensive). Derrick also had a game-high 13 free throw attempts, converting 12 of them, including four of five in the final few minutes.
Rose had his share of clutch moments, too, starting with a 17-foot buzzer beater at the end of the second quarter to give the Bulls 49-46 halftime lead. He then scored seven points in the final 4:03 of the third quarter to give the Bulls a 74-73 lead heading into the fourth.
Rose went on to score eight points in the final 12 minutes. He scored six of those points in the final 2:17, which included a true MVP-style moment: With less than 20 seconds remaining and the Bulls clinging to a two-point lead, Rose absolutely burned Tony Allen (a really good defensive player) off the dribble and banked in a running left-handed layup while getting fouled by Marc Gasol. He knocked down the freebie to give Chicago a five-point lead with 10 seconds left.
Let’s go ahead and watch it:
After a Memphis timeout, the Bulls forced Darrell Arthur into a badly missed three-point attempt — why Arthur, who hasn’t hit a three in 178 career games, took that shot is anyone’s guess — but Shane Battier batted the rebound to O.J. Mayo, who drilled a triple with four seconds left (call it the Law of Averages, since the Grizzlies had been 1-for-13 from downtown before that shot).
Allen was forced to foul Rose, who hit one of two to giv the Bulls a 99-96 lead, and Conley shanked a 27-foot attempt as time ran out. And — big sigh of relief — the win was secured.
Blowouts. Clutch victories. The Bulls are doing a little bit of everything this season.
Said Boozer: “For us, we get poise at the end of the game. We’ve been there before this season. We’ve had games where we had to come back. We’ve had games where we went up by a lot and the other team came back and we’ve had to hold them off. We’ve had games where we fought from being down a lot. We’ve almost seen every scenario this season, so when the game got down to the wire we were comfortable because we had already been there.”
That has to be a good sign for the upcoming playoffs, right? This squad hasn’t been battle-tested together in the postseason yet, but they’ve been through an awful lot this season: Roster overhaul, new coach, new system, injuries, so on and so forth. But here they sit, on top of the Eastern Conference standings, a full two games up on the Boston Celtics (and, more importantly, two fewer losses).
But the focus isn’t on Boston.
Said Deng: “I really don’t care, I swear. That’s the honest truth. I think everyone’s looking at it that way. We just got to stay focused on us. Boston is an experienced team. I don’t know how much they want that home-court advantage or not, but I’m sure they feel like they can beat anyone. I think we, as a team, are finding ourself where we’re at for the first time, we got to keep going. We got to keep on getting better right now.”
Agreed. The Bulls need to stay focused on themselves…
…and tonight’s game in Milwaukee.