Well, so much for Derrick Rose owning Steve Nash.
On paper, last night’s matchup of rising star versus former MVP looks kind of even. Rose finished with 23 points (7-for-16 from the field, 8-for-9 at the line), 5 rebounds, 10 assists and a steal. Nash had 22 points (8-for-20, 2-for-3 on threes, 4-for-4 from the stripe), 4 rebounds, 10 assists and 2 steals.
The battle wasn’t so close in terms of their plus-minus stats, where Nash was +12 and Rose was -3. And, of course, the final score went in favor of Captain Canada.
But numbers don’t really tell the story of how Nash almost single-handedly stole this game down the stretch. For most of the fourth quarter, it looked like the Bulls were going to live up to Derrick’s playoff prediction. Then, with just over five minutes remaining and Chicago clinging to a three-point lead, Nash took over.
Nash started by finding Amar’e Stoudemire (21 points, 11 rebounds) for a layup (Bulls 94, Suns 93). After a Brad Miller three, Nash hit a driving layup of his own (Bulls 97, Suns 95). After the two teams traded a few misses, Nash suckered in Chicago’s defense and then hit Jason Richardson (27 points, 10-for-19) for a three-pointer (Suns 98, Bulls 97).
Rose hit a short jumper, but then Nash countered by driving the lane hard and hitting a turnaround of his own (Suns 100, Bulls 99). Derrick came back with an aggressive drive to earn a couple free throws, both of which he hit (Bulls 101, Suns 100). However, Nash on-upped Rose by snaking into the paint for a scoop shot and the foul (Suns 103, Bulls 101 after Nash hit the freebie). Rose again went hard to the hole, earning and converting another pair of foul shots to tie the game at 103-103 with 59 seconds left.
Pretty exciting stuff, right?
Unfortunately for the Bulls, Nash wasn’t done. Now, did I mention that Kirk Hinrich left the game for good after spraining his left ankle by stepping on Joakim Noah’s foot in the second quarter? This meant Jannero Pargo was guarding Nash down the stretch. And by “guarding” I mean “usually watching Nash run right past him.”
Pargo might have been a cardboard cutout for all the trouble Nash had in maneuvering to wherever he wanted to go. Jannero could not stay in front of Nash, and, to be fair, the rest of the Bulls didn’t exactly amaze with their rotations. So with 41 seconds left, Nash pulled what seemed like the entire Chicago defense into the paint before finding Channing Frye for a wide-open three-pointer to put Phoenix ahead 106-103.
As soon as Frye’s shot went in, it felt like the Bulls were done. A three-point deficit down the stretch is deadly against a team that doesn’t shoot the three that well. Chicago made the right play out of the timeout, as Rose drove in for a quick layup to pull the Bulls to within a point with 37 seconds left. But Nash once again pulled all the Chicago defenders to him and dished to Grant Hill for a wide-open dunk with 23 seconds left. Suns 108, Bulls 105.
Then Rose blinked.
Perhaps feeling the pressure — and I mean really feeling it — for the first time all game, Rose forced a three-pointer with a Suns defender right in his face. Like, so in his face that Derrick had to double-clutch the shot attempt, which didn’t come anywhere close to going down. Phoenix ended up with the ball and the Bulls were forced to foul Nash, who naturally drilled both free throws to give his team a five-point lead with 13 seconds left. Game over.
Regarding his ill-advised three-pointer, Rose said: “I felt like I should take it. I had to adjust. In the future when that play comes around again, I’ll know what to do.”
Thanks to Nash, that future will probably have to be next season, because this loss was devastating to Chicago’s playoff chances. The Bulls only trail the eighth place Raptors by 1 1/2 games, but Toronto has a more favorable schedule down the stretch. No matter how you look at it, the Bulls are facing an uphill battle, especially with Luol Deng still out with a strained calf and Hinrich’s status unknown.
Give Derrick credit, though. He’s keeping his chin up.
Said Rose: “It’s hard right now. But, you can’t think about it like that. We play soon [at New Jersey tonight]. And that’s what I’m thinking about [Wednesday] to let [the team] know our heads can’t be down. We came out and played our hardest tonight. We played and competed tonight. We didn’t execute our plays like we were supposed to. They did. They won.
“I’m actually going to go back to the Berto [Center] right now and shoot with some of my friends. Hopefully [Wednesday] in practice talk to [the team]. Everybody needs to get involved and win some games.”
The sad thing is, everybody was involved. Flip Murray was fantastic off the bench (23 points, 9-for-12, 9 rebounds, 4 assists). Joakim Noah looked like his old self, finishing with four dunks, a couple blocked shots, and a double-double (12 points, 10 boards). Taj Gibson had a double-double of his own (14 points, 10 rebounds). Pargo even hit a couple threes to help the Bulls recover from an early deficit.
Earlier in the season, this loss might have counted as a moral victory. But Chicago doesn’t have the margin of error left for that. Moral victories aren’t going to earn them a trip to the postseason. Only real victories will.
Update! Here are some thoughts from By The Horns reader and guest author Tony C.: “I also consider the final few minutes to have been an illustration of why Rose hasn’t fully arrived yet as a star. Yes, it’s true that he isn’t a stellar defensive player, but he should have TOLD Vinny and the team that HE would guard Nash. Then he should have gone out there, adrenaline pumping, and done his hyper-athletic best to shut Nash down. If the Suns had beaten us with someone else knocking in shots, so be it. But to allow the player who was obviously going to to attempt to take control of the game to do just that was inexcusable, and I believe that if Rose was a true leader at this stage, he would have at least tried to step up and assert himself on defense.”