What a crazy, wild, unthinkable ride this season has been. A few months ago, the Chicago Bulls were an awful mess. GM John Paxson was accused of mismanaging the team and at one point was rumored to be stepping down in semi-disgrace. Vinny Del Negro was declared a coaching bust; people were calling for his head and discussing whether someone like Avery Johnson, Doug Collins or Flip Saunders should be brought in to right the sinking ship. The team couldn’t win a home, couldn’t win on the road, couldn’t take care of the ball, couldn’t hold onto leads in the fourth quarter, couldn’t…well, let’s just say that the list of things they couldn’t do was really, really long.
The fans were disgusted. People were giving up, leaving this year’s team for dead, praying for a change, a savior, maybe Amar’e Stoudemire, perhaps Chris Bosh. When Pax finally made the moves that brought in Brad Miller and John Salmons, they bemoaned Miller’s albatross of a contract, suggested that Salmons was a stat-padder or, worse, a ballhog, and wondered why Paxson failed to rid the team of Kirk Hinrich’s bloated salary.
Even as the team started winning a few more games than it was losing, people scoffed. When TNT’s Ernie Johnson brought up the Bulls’ growing momentum at home, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith mocked him and derided Chicago as just some sub-.500 team unworthy of respect or consideration. And even when they started to look like a pretty sure bet to make the playoffs, some people casually dismissed them as a team that could play well at home — 14 of 15 by last count — but would likely falter on the road.
But this team keeps answering questions. Tonight, they proved they could go into a hostile arena and compete in a playoff-like atmosphere. Not only compete, in fact, but win in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. And I have to tell you, this 91-88 win over the Pistons in Detroit felt a lot like redemption, for Paxson’s vision, for Vinny’s growth, for Derrick Rose’s maturity, for the coming together of seemingly disparate parts.
Chicago has become a running team, so Detroit slowed the tempo and relied on mismatches, execution and experience to slowly overwhelm the younger, less experienced Bulls. And when Rodney Stuckey drilled a 19-footer to give the Pistons an 11-point lead with 9:47 left in the third quarter, it honest-to-God felt like Detroit was about to start pulling away. But they couldn’t maintain the double-digit lead…the Bulls just kept hanging around, hanging around…
And it wasn’t one guy doing it, either. Joakim Noah hit a layup. Ben Gordon did the same. Noah drew a foul and knocked down a couple free throws. Gordon hit from 14 feet out. Derrick Rose nailed a running 18-footer. John Salmons and Gordon sent a couple jumpers down the well. Tim Thomas hit a layup and got the “And 1!”
Then came the decisive fourth quarter. This is where the Bulls were supposed to falter. But they didn’t. The Pistons did. Chicago outscored Detroit 22-13 in that final period. And Rose showed that, while he isn’t quite up there with D-Wade, Kobe or LeBron, he someday very well might be. Quite simply, Derrick took over. He dropped in a free throw. He hit Tyrus Thomas for a jumper. Then he assisted Miller on an 18-footer. He got Brad a layup on the next possession. A couple minutes later, he found Miller for a three-pointer, Chicago’s only triple of the second half. A short while later, Rose hit layups on back-to-back possessions. Then he got fouled and converted a couple foul shots to pull the Bulls to within two (87-85) with 4:07 to go.
Then things almost fell apart.
Detroit was up 88-85 with 2:23 to play when Miller lost the ball on a travelling violation and then picked up his second technical foul of the quarter for, ahem, disagreeing with the call. (Brad also got T’d up with 5:58 left when the officials called him for an offensive foul after a made layup. So instead of a three-point play, Miller got the foul. And he let the ref know that he wasn’t a fan.)
Anyway, it looked like Brad’s tantrum was going to cost his team the game. But Rip Hamilton bonked the free throw and then turned the ball over 19 seconds after play resumed. Bullet: Dodged.
Then it was Rose to the rescue again. After both teams combined for a few misses, Derrick hit a fast break layup while getting fouled by Rasheed Wallace. He calmly put in the free throw to tie the game. Then he made a spectacular play on defense, blocking Rodney Stuckey’s jumper. Joakim controlled the rebound to give the Bulls possession with 31 seconds left. Then it was Gordon time, as little Ben drove in for the go-ahead layup with 14 ticks on the clock. The Pistons called timeout, but ‘Sheed couldn’t convert a three and Antonio McDyess, who snared the offensive board, wasn’t able to nail a followup shot. Rose pulled down the rebound, got fouled and hit one out of two from the line. There were only two seconds left, Detroit was out of timeouts and Stuckey’s 61-footer hit nothing but the shot clock.
Detroit’s loss doomed them to the East’s eighth seed and a first-round date with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, Chicago’s win moved the Bulls them to one game over .500 (41-40) for the first time since November 1, when they were 2-1. More importantly, it put them in sixth place, a half-game up on the Philadelphia 76ers. And while the Bulls wrap up their season at home against the Raptors on Wednesday, Philly has to face the Celtics at home and the Cavaliers on the road.
A first-round matchup with the banged up, struggling Orlando Magic? That doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe Tyrus knew what he was talking about when he said the Bulls were the most dangerous team heading into the Eastern Conference playoffs…
Player notes: Rose scored a team-high 24 points (9-for-17), including 11 in the fourth quarter. He also had a 5 rebounds and a team-best 8 assists. Gordon shot 8-for-15, connected on three of his five three-point attempts and finished with 19 points. Joakim had a double-double (11 points, 13 boards) plus 4 assists and a block. Tyrus added 13 points, 8 boards and 2 blocks. Miller came off the bench to contribute 10 points (4-for-6), 2 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, a game-high 6 turnovers (ugh) and one ejection.