Well, I guess it’s safe to say that swapping Aaron Gray for Devin Brown hasn’t upset team chemistry.
All joking aside…can you believe what we’re seeing?
Three straight games in which the Bulls have hit better than 50 percent of their field goals. Not bad for a team that can’t shoot. Three straight wins on the road against teams that are above .500. Not bad for a team that was 4-15 on the road before tipping off in Phoenix last Friday night.
Understand, of course, that the Phoenix Suns have been struggling and are only 12-17 since opening the season 14-3. The Houston Rockets are playing without their two high-paid superstars, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady (that latter by choice rather than circumstance). And the San Antonio Spurs — the latest road kill on Chicago’s cruise through the Western Conference — are quite clearly not the NBA champion Spurs of old.
That said, those three squads are a combined 47-21 at home and 43-11 against sub-.500 teams. And yet here are the Bulls, suddenly 3-2 on their toughest road trip of the season and a mere on game below the .500 mark (21-22).
It’s pretty safe to say nobody outside of the Chicago locker room expected this, especially after the Bulls opened this seven-game trip with losses to the Golden State Warriors (who have the second-worst record in their conference) and the Los Angeles Clippers (who are, after all, the Clippers).
What’s even more fascinating is that the Bulls entered last night’s game ailing. Joakim Noah played through a case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, and Derrick Rose was suffering from flu-like symptoms. But Chicago ended up shooting almost 54 percent from the field and took down a team that opened the season on the short list of possible championship contenders.
And now the Bulls have won 11 of their last 16 games.
If you want to thank someone, thank Derrick Rose. This kid has been on fire for almost two months. Rose has scored 20 or more points in 15 of his last 21 games, including four games with 30 or more. In January, he’s averaging 23.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 6.5 RPG while shooting 51 percent from the field. Rose has mastered the pull-up jump shot. He has developed a killer running, one-handed floater. He can penetrate seemingly whenever he wants.
Frankly, he’s playing like an All-Star.
I doubt he’ll make the All-Star team, mostly because he began the season so slowly and also because the Bulls — for all their recent success — are not considered to be among the elite teams (or even the pretty good teams). But there arent’ too many guards in the Eastern Conference who are playing better than D-Rose right now. Frankly, there may not be any.
Rose had to wrap himself in towels on the sideline because of chills and was limited to 35 minutes of action because of his flu bug, but he still finished with a game-high 27 points on 13-for-23 shooting to go along with 6 assists and zero turnovers. He also made a series of clutch plays in the fourth quarter:
11:12: With the Spurs leading by three, Rose hit a 15-footer to pull the Bulls to within a point (73-72).
8:57: Rose nailed a 14-footer to tie the game (77-77).
8:19: Rose drills a three-pointer to put the Bulls ahead by three (80-77).
7:47: Rose found Brad Miller for a three-ball that put Chicago up four (83-79).
2:57: Rose hits from six feet to put the Bulls back up by two (89-87).
0:56: Rose knocked in a shot from nine feet to put Chicago ahead by two again (93-91).
Those were six critical plays down the stretch in a huge win. Rose was — by far — the best player on the floor last night. Better than Manu Ginobili (14 points, 4-for-14), Tony Parker (20 points, 8 assists) and even better than Tim Duncan (15 points, 6-for-15).
Speaking of clutch, let’s hear it for Noah (11 points and 5 boards in only 24 minutes), who gutted out a foot injury to make one of the biggest non-Rose plays of the night. With 36 seconds left and the game tied at 93-93, Rose missed a driving layup, but Noah ripped down the offensive board and tossed in the go-ahead layup. The Spurs didn’t score again, and Noah finished things off by hitting three of four from the line.
And you know what? Because I’m feeling generous, I’m going to go ahead and give Vinny Del Negro some credit. Remember, this guy’s head was on the chopping block not too long ago. Fans were screaming for him to be fired and management would not give him a strong endorsement (or, really, any endorsement at all). But Vinny has very quietly transformed the Bulls into a top 10 defensive team (they are currently ranked 8th in Defensive Efficiency). He made the decision to start Kirk Hinrich while bringing John Salmons off the bench, which has benefited both players (and the team). And, more recently, he’s been putting Hinrich on opposing point guards both to slow down the other team’s offense and give Rose a break. Hinrich shut down Steve Nash and hounded Parker last night.
I’m just saying, all these things have put the Bulls in a better position to win, and that’s what they’ve been doing lately. Again, they’ve won 11 of their last 16 games. Vinny is not going to win Coach of the Year, and I’m not saying I want him back next season. But still…isn ‘t it time to give him a little credit where credit is due? At the end of last season, the Bulls made a playoff push with strong offense and a porous defense. This season they’ve been competing with solid defense and very little offense (until recently). That’s a pretty major shift in team identity to make on the fly. And, frankly, with limited personnel.
Of course, great players can make coaches look a lot better. And, as noted, Rose is becoming a great player before our very eyes. And Vinny knows it. So does Noah, who said: “I’m not gonna lie: D-Rose is playing at a really high level.”
And suddenly, so are the Bulls. Who would have guessed?