Derrick Rose had himself an “MJ game.”
Here’s what I mean by that. There are people who incorrectly believe that Michael Jordan did all of the Bulls’ winning by himself. Experts and astute Bulls fans know otherwise. Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper Steve Kerr…all these guys (among others) made invaluable contributions that were absolutely crucial for the team to win six titles in eight years.
That said, there were games in which Mike had to put his coaches and teammates on his back and carry them to victory through sheer force of will. Sometimes it happened in statement games or regular season matchups against potential playoff opponents. Other times it happened during crucial postseason games or at the end of a long playoff series when everybody on both sides was running on fumes.
But there were times when an “MJ game” wasn’t obvious. When it didn’t happen on national TV against another championship contender. Sometimes Jordan had to work his magic in mundane contests that would never end up on ESPN Classic. Because sometimes it’s the “should win” moments that cause a team to stumble. When, for whatever reason, guys are a step slow and a little out of kilter. The other team is fired up and playing for their lives. That sort of thing.
That’s when the superstar has to put on his hard hat and get it done.
Don’t get me wrong. Jordan wasn’t the first or last player to do that. NBA history is full of guys who have done it and are doing it right now. But when I think about players who just flat-out made it happen with their minds even when the body (or bodies) may have been weak, MJ is the first person who pops to mind.
Now Rose is doing it, too.
No offense to the Bucks. They’re a scrappy club and an elite defensive unit (currently fourth in Defensive Rating). But they’re not as good as the Bulls. Not even close. Which, all things being equal, made this a “should win” game. But all things aren’t equal. Playing on the road on the second night of back-to-backs against a team clawing to make the playoffs can turn a “should win” into a “should’ve won.”
It sure looked like that was going to happen last night. The Bucks pretty much controlled the first two quarters and then came out smoking to start the second half. When John Salmons knocked down a 13-footer to put the Bucks up 60-45 with 7:43 left in the third quarter, the Bulls appeared to be fading.
Then something really interesting happened.
But wait. Let’s look at the disastrous possessions that led up to that 15-point deficit. It started at the 10:45 mark of the third quarter. Luol Deng bricked a mid-range jumper, Carlos Boozer grabbed the offensive board but Deng had his ensuing layup attempt stuffed by Andrew Bogut. Chicago’s next possession ended in a shot clock violation. On the next possession, Rose was forced to chuck up a three to (barely) beat the shot clock buzzer. Joakim Noah snared the rebound but had his pass stolen by Bogut.
Next time down the floor, Noah again had his pass stolen, this time by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Next possession, Keith Bogans missed a three-point shot and then fouled John Salmons out of frustration. After Salmons hit his two foul shots, Bogans chucked up another off-target three-ball, which led to the shot that put the Bucks up by 15 points.
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
As I said, Bogans had just missed two threes. Missed them badly. Missed them so badly, in fact, that I found myself silently wishing he would never take another shot for the Bulls ever again. But Rose had other ideas. Without the slightest hesitation, he found Bogans for another three-point attempt. Splash! Rose passed to Bogans for another three-point attempt on the very next possession. Splash!
A coach might tell you that all Rose did was make the right basketball play. You pass to the open teammate. But, unless I’m way off here (which is always possible), there was extra meaning in Derrick’s passes. Almost as if it was his way of saying: “I haven’t lost faith in you, Keith. Keep shooting the ball. We need you to keep the defense honest.”
Bogans kept shooting, and those two threes started a modest comeback that saw Chicago pull to within five points (74-69) going into the fourth quarter. But that final quarter was a dogfight and it looked like the Bulls weren’t going to get over the hump. They were still down 83-79 with 4:09 left…and that’s when Rose really took over.
Rose put his head down and drove to the hoop. Tweet! Foul on Mbah a Moute. Rose hit both freebies. Bucks by two.
The defense forced Mbah a Moute into a long jumper that didn’t connect. Rose brought the ball upcourt and mishandled it for a moment. Brandon Jennings gambled for the steal but Rose maintained control and found Boozer for a layup. Tie game.
Kyle Korver then sandwiched a missed three-pointer between a pair of fouls (one phantom and one legit) on Carlos Delfino. Delfino hit all four foul shots. Bucks up 87-83.
That’s when Rose orchestrated a 12-0 run.
With 2:50 left, he drove, drew a foul on Jennings, and converted his foul shots.
With 2:28 left, he found a sprinting Noah for a fast break layup.
With 1:53 left, he attacked the basket for one of his patented layups.
With 1:07 left, he hit one of his floating, one-handed runners from 13 feet out.
With 42 seconds left, he drove, got Milwaukee’s defense turning every which way, then spun and faded for a 14-foot jumper that swished.
With 29 seconds left, he made his second-best assist of the night to Ronnie Brewer for the layup and a foul. (I thought this was Derrick’s best assist to Brewer.)
Credit where credit is due: Chicago’s defense kept Milwaukee from scoring during that run. But the Bucks also had their will broken by Rose.
As ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell writes, even Derrick’s teammates are amazed.
Said Noah: “I just feel really privileged to play with a guy like that, who’s all about the right things. To have a performance like that and be the most humble person you’ll ever meet. He’s a humble guy, but when he’s on the court, there’s really nothing humble about him. He wants the ball at the end and he knows he’s going to make the right play. He’s going to make the right play, and with his ability to score the basketball, he can score in so many different ways, it’s pretty exciting to watch.”
Added Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “He’s done it all year. He’s got to continue to do it. The thing that I really respect about him is that he’s never satisfied. So he’ll keep driving, and the important thing for him is the win. He’s not concerned with what he’s doing individually. He’s more concerned with how our team is doing. And his defense continues to improve. This was a tough game. Milwaukee’s playing extremely well, they’re playing very, very hard. They’re a tough team defensively. It’s hard to get a good shot against them and he did whatever he had to do put us in position to win.”
Just as amazing as how he played was Rose’s mixture of post-game confidence and humility.
First: “The worst thing you can do is give me confidence. No matter what I’m doing. Playing whatever, doing whatever. If I get any type of confidence it’s going to be hard to stop me.”
Then: “I didn’t do s— yet. We’ve got to get to the second round. That’s what we’re trying to do now. We’re a team where we get to the first [round] and we lose. First round, we lose. We’re trying to get past that now.”
Rose knows he’s good. But he’s not caught up in how good he is.
Added Rose: “I can’t complain about anything right now. We’re winning. Everything’s going good for us. You could just feel the vibe in the locker room right now. We’re happy, man. We’re rolling right now and we’ve got a bunch of good guys that are on the team that love playing with each other. We’re confident against anybody in the NBA. We proved that we can compete with all the best teams now.”
Rose finished with 30 points and a career-high 17 assists. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the last Bulls player to have at least 30 points and 17 assists was — you guessed it — Michael Jordan. MJ had 34 points and 17 assists against the Portland Trail Blazers back on March 24, 1989.
More ESPN Stats and Information:
The Bulls outscored the Bucks by 13 points in the 4th quarter, turning a 5-pt deficit into an 8-pt win. On the year the Bulls have been dominant in the 4th, outscoring their opponents by 201 points. No other team has outscored its opponents by 100 points in the final frame this season.
The Bulls have a chance to become just the 6th team in the last 15 seasons to outscore their opponents by at least 200 points in the 4th quarter over the course of a season. Of the five teams to do it, only one won an NBA title… The Lakers in 2001-02.
Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball: “With Drew Gooden, Michael Redd and Corey Maggette sitting in uniform on the bench, one can only wonder what if they had been healthy all season? What if they were able to develop the same type of chemistry with the Bucks starters of last season that have reclaimed their places this season. It’s that lack of trust of two separate sects on a team that leaves them on the bench while Skiles rides the guys he knows. This late in the season, there is simply no time to build it back up. So don’t expect much to change until the Bucks are out of the playoff picture or out of games early. Like it or not.”