Talk about the perfect gift.
The Bulls shot a horrific 12-for-48 in the second half of their Christmas day game against the Lakers in L.A., and that 25 percent rate of inaccuracy nearly doomed them to an 0-1 start to the season.
Enter the team defense.
Enter Luol Deng’s timely scoring, crucial steal, and game-ending block.
Enter Derrick Rose.
Admittedly, things looked pretty grim when the Lakers went up 82-71 on Kobe Bryant’s layup with 3:44 remaining. Kobe’s bucket capped off an ugly minute that saw Carlos Boozer go 1-for-4 from the line and the Bulls miss several tip shots and layup attempts.
It just wasn’t Chicago’s night. That’s what it felt like anyway.
Fortunately, the Bulls refused to roll over and play patsy to the Lakers. And, as ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell wrote, that had a lot to do with Rose’s leadership.
Said Joakim Noah: “Derrick told us with three minutes to go, ‘We’ve been in this position before. Let’s just keep fighting. I feel like we didn’t play our best basketball, but to come up and win in this fashion, it just says a lot about this team.”
Added Rose: “I told them that we’ve been in this situation before. [The Lakers] are a new team, they have new players [a] new system. I said that they haven’t been in that circumstance yet. And we’ve been there. And thank God we just got a couple of steals, a great couple of plays, and we won the game.”
Did they ever.
And the win combined all the little elements that made last season’s 62-win team so special:
With 3:34 remaining, Rose hit a shot to cut the lead to nine.
With 3:13 left, Joakim Noah — who had switched out to guard Bryant — forced a steal that turned into a breakaway dunk for Deng.
With 2:33 to go, after the Bulls had forced a missed jumper by Pau Gasol, Ronnie Brewer knocked down a 13-footer.
After that, Steve Blake canned a triple, but Deng drew a foul from Kobe and knocked down both freebies to cut the deficit to 85-79.
On L.A.’s next possession, Brewer fouled Gasol, but the big man missed both foul shots. Rose followed those bricks by feeding Carlos Boozer for a layup that cut the Laker lead to 85-81 with 1:27 to go.
L.A.’s Josh McRoberts drew a foul 15 seconds later, but like Gasol, he shanked both free throws. Unfortunately, the Lakers got the offensive rebound and Kobe ended up drilling a clutch jumper with 54 seconds left to put his team up 87-81.
After a timeout, Deng missed a wide open three but snagged the offensive board then got the layup and the foul. His three-point play cut L.A.’s lead to 87-84 with 45 seconds left.
Kobe followed that play by missing a contested 18-footer and committing a bad foul on Deng, who calmly sank both free throws. Lakers by only one point.
L.A. called time out, but after inbounding the ball, Kobe’s pass to Gasol was stolen by Deng. The Bulls got the ball into Rose’s hand, and Derrick proceeded to cut into the paint and hit a ridiculous one-handed shot over Gasol to give the Bulls an 88-87 lead with four seconds left.
The game ended when Kobe drove into a small crowd of Bulls players and got his last-second shot swatted by Deng.
Never give up. Never surrender. That’s the Chicago Bulls.
Said Deng: “I think everyone knows by now, we play hard. We play hard, we play together and we stick with it. Whether we’re down 30 or down two, we’re always going to play until the end.”
It was a truly satisfying win in a game in which the Bulls shot poorly as a team (40 percent) and got very little out of the recently acquired Richard Hamilton (3-for-8 for only 6 points and 5 fouls in 23 minutes).
But the team got a solid performance from Boozer (15 points, 7-for-13), a great all-around game from Deng (21 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists, 1 block) and a standard Derrick Rose outing (22 points, 9-for-13, 5 assists, 1 game-winning shot).
The team never stopped playing D. And the offense came.
Of course, there was some sloppiness, and there were jitters. Like I said, Rip looked awful. Noah’s shooting (3-for-12) was ghastly. Other than Brewer, the bench turned in a string of negative plus-minus stats. But the Bulls won as a team. A fact that Rose was quick to point out after the game.
Said Rose: “If it weren’t for my teammates, making the steal and getting the ball to me at the end, there’s no way I could have gotten that shot off to help us win that game.”
That all-out effort will have to continue for the Bulls to reach their ultimate goal.
Title number seven.