The Bulls were without Derrick Rose.
And again. And again. And again.
That’s what it feels like anyway. As of last night’s home win over the Knicks, Rose has missed 23 games this season with a variety of injuries: turf toe, back spasms, groin pull, and now a sprained ankle he suffered in Sunday’s nationally televised loss to the Knicks in New York.
Isn’t Rose too young to be falling apart this way?
The Bulls — who now are 16-7 without the reigning MVP this season — have been so patient with Rose’s health that I wrote his health wasn’t Chicago’s primary concern in a recent ESPN 5-on-5. Boy oh boy, did I miss the mark on that or what?
Turn out Rose’s health is indeed the Bulls’ biggest problem. There are eight games left in the regular season, the team’s best player is hobbling around, and there’s no way of knowing when he’ll be healthy or even whether he’ll be healthy before the 2012-13 season opens.
Against that rather sobering (and possibly even depressing) backdrop, the Bulls avenged their previous loss to the Knicks by playing “Tom Thibodeau basketball.”
They defended: Forcing 17 turnovers, blocking 10 shots, and limiting the Knicks to 42 percent shooting (including 7-for-21 on threes).
They rebounded: Winning the battle of the boards 51-33, which included an 18-5 edge in offensive rebounds, which in turn led to a 25-5 advantage in second-chance points.
They took care of the basketball: Limiting themselves to only 12 turnovers, including only three in the second half and zero in the fourth quarter.
Everybody contributed: There was Luol Deng’s double-double (19 points and 10 rebounds). There was Richard Hamilton who scored 20 points in only 20 minutes to go with 5 assists and 4 rebounds…and 18 of those points were scored in a fire-and-lighting third quarter explosion. Then there were near double-doubles by Carlos Boozer (10 points, 8 rebounds), C.J. Watson (9 points, 7 assists), and Joakim Noah (9 rebounds, 7 points).
The Bench Mob outscored New York’s reserves 33-18, outrebounded them 17-10, out-assisted them 9-1, and out-blocked them 7-1. And check out the plus-minus scores: John Lucas (+16 in 16 minutes), Taj Gibson (+16 in 25 minutes), Kyle Korver (+15 in 23 minutes), Omer Asik (+9 in 9 minutes), Ronnie Brewer (+8 in 11 minutes) and Jimmy Butler (+8 in 12 minutes).
The thing about the bench players, and the reason I’m quoting plus-minus stats, is that their raw numbers don’t really illustrate their impact. I mean, Asik finished with 2 rebounds, 1 block and zero points but his block of Tyson Chandler’s dunk attempt was epic.
Jimmy Butler was 1-for-4 and had only 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist and 1 steal. But in the second quarter — during which the Knicks shot 4-for-21 and the Bulls outscored them 25-10 — the rookie was matched up with none other than Carmelo Anthony. Butler chased ‘Melo, denied him the ball, and forced him into tough shots. Anthony scored only 3 points in that second quarter in large part because of Butler’s efforts.
And that’s what it all comes down to with these Bulls. Effort. They give it. They take losses personally…especially when they play poorly or makes mistakes. That’s how they viewed Sunday’s loss at Madison Square Garden. They watched the film. They corrected the mistakes. And they won.
Without Rose. Again.
Effort shows in rebounding and defense. It shows in how the Bulls outscored the Knicks 40-28 in the paint and 14-10 in fast break points.
Effort shows in how guys step up to the challenge. Take Korver. He owned the fourth quarter. And I’m only talking about how he scored 11 of his 14 points in the final 12 minutes. He blocked two shots in the final period (and, for the record, tied Tyson Chandler with a game-high 3 blocks on the night). He made two heroic dives for loose balls, the first of which he transformed into a sweet on-his-butt assist to Gibson for a dunk and the second of which he managed to snag and call timeout to save a possession.
Kyle even ran out and got out on a fast break, hit a layup while being fouled by J.R. Smith and completed the “And 1!” by calmly knocking down the ensuring free throw. And did I mention Korver finished with 7 rebounds…more than every single Knicks player except for Chandler (15)?
Said Korver: “The game the other night it really came down to a couple plays. If we had gotten a few loose balls, if we had made a couple shots, if we had made a free throw, we would have won the game. So I think tonight everyone had the mindset of if there’s a loose ball, you got to get it. If there’s an open shot, you got to take it. I thought everybody did that tonight.
“When you play solid defense and dominate a team on the boards, it doesn’t matter who you have on the offensive end — it obviously matters, but not as much. This is a team that hangs their hat on defense and rebounding.”
That quote right there speaks to the heart of these Bulls and explains (in part) why — despite a season full of injury woes — they are still a league-best 44-14.
The lingering question, which won’t be answered until their season ends, is whether it will be enough if Rose’s body can’t heal in time for the playoffs.