In a way, this felt like the first time we’ve actually seen the Bulls all season. Their offense hasn’t been this easy on the eyes in eons (per Basketball Reference, the wacky 2011-2012 lockout season is the only year Chicago has had a top ten offense in the Post-Jordan Era), but the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau have been a team that thrives on emotion. The games that stand out, Game 1 against Indiana in 2011, the Christmas Day comeback over the Lakers, the streak-breaker over Miami, Games 4 and 7 against Brooklyn in 2013, all revolved around them doing anything and everything to win. They embodied and validated the cheesiest cliches in sports about effort, perseverance and teamwork.
No longer needing to scrap and claw for wins, they’re a more complete team this year. Jimmy Butler has been a borderline MVP candidate. Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic have fit in seamlessly. Derrick Rose is slowly but surely rounding back into his old self.
And yet, something was missing: an adversary.
It’s often said that the villain makes the movie, and that’s been the secret ingredient in Chicago’s most memorable bouts over the years. KG and Pierce’s Celtics, the Bulls before the Bulls, are long gone. LeBron left Miami and took all of the sizzle of the Bulls-Heat rivalry with him. The soulless Nets were the perfect foil for the tattered remains of the 2013 Bulls, but now lie in ruins themselves. Without Paul George and Lance Stephenson, the Pacers have been defanged, at least for now.
While the new Eastern Conference is proving to be more ferocious than anticipated (the five East contenders are 52-8 against the rest of the conference), Cleveland, Atlanta and Toronto are in their infancy as contenders. Washington is as well, with the important caveat that they outmuscled the Bulls in a five game series last season. That history played out in the preseason, as new Wizard Paul Pierce went out of his way to make a point that was for his teammates as much as it was for the Bulls: We’re not backing down.
The Bulls finally had their heel, their motivation, and it showed. A night after toppling Toronto in a pinball affair, they battled the Wizards in a physical game. Unlike their series last April though, this game never turned ugly. The first half was dead-even, the six point difference coming from last second threes to close each quarter, the first from Gasol, then from Rose.
Chicago came out strong in the third and built a nine point lead. Not to be outdone, Washington scored on seven straight possessions, tallying 14 points in just over three minutes. With mostly reserves in the game, the Bulls went back to work. Led by an emotional Taj Gibson (he and Noah unleashed vocal screams and put a little extra into their dunks tonight), Chicago pushed back and built an 11 point buffer.
The Bulls had imposed their will and were threatening to throw the knockout punch.
Then the final eight minutes happened. Hampered by foul trouble, John Wall hadn’t done much to that point, but he turned into a one-man fastbreak. Time and time again he pushed the pace, practically tapping into the Speed Force and finishing at the rim over multiple defenders and blowing past a backpedaling Rose.
The spiritual heir to Rose’s vacated throne, Wall defended his home court and the crowd was rocking. Perhaps the Bulls just didn’t have enough in the tank to finish off a road back-to-back for the second time in a week. It would have been disappointing, but understandable.
Trailing by one with less than four minutes to go, the once (and future?) king returned. After a pair of Butler free throws put the Bulls back up one, Rose snared a loose ball off of a Wall pass and scored on three straight possessions, culminating in a jumper that upped the lead to seven. As Washington called timeout, Rose was clearly feeling it, strut-skipping all the way to the bench:
The Derrick Rose Skip https://t.co/O7woag5hne
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) December 24, 2014
A vicious Marcin Gortat dunk cut the lead to five, only for Rose to answer the bell again, scoring to get it back to seven. The Wizards came up empty on their next two trips up the court and two Gasol free throws sealed the game.
Rose led the Bulls to victory by attacking. In what has become a telling barometer, he wasn’t settling for jumpers. The Bulls are now 9-1 in games Rose shoots five or fewer threes, versus 4-4 when he takes more than five. His 25 points (on 10-17 shooting) means they are now 6-0 when he scores more than 20 points.
This season has showed these aren’t the same old Bulls. Tonight, however, showed that thankfully they still are.
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