Posted Oct 28 2010 12:16AM - Updated Oct 28 2010 7:59AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- They're friends. They've worked out together for the last three summers. They were USA Basketball teammates on a world stage.
To call Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook the future at point guard isn't fair to the present. To call them good, young point guards isn't fair to them.
As Thunder coach Scott Brooks likes to say, they're just good. Age doesn't have anything to do with it, even if Rose just turned 22 earlier this month and Westbrook hits the same number in about two weeks. So when Westbrook's Thunder and Rose's Bulls christened their seasons against one another Wednesday night, eyes and gapes naturally gravitated toward the two electric playmakers.
They didn't disappoint.
Westbrook got the better of his good buddy on both the stat sheet and in the column that means more to each competitive soul. The Thunder, relying on a series of fourth quarter defensive stands, pulled away for the 106-95 victory over a team that's certain to be an Eastern Conference contender.
The Bulls aren't there yet, as Rose pointed out in the visitor's locker room. He lamented the "blown" offensive sets that plagued Chicago down the stretch. Too much standing around. Too many unsure of where they were supposed to be. Too much heaped on Rose's shoulders.
"That's going to improve with us jelling," Rose said.
The Bulls are missing Carlos Boozer, and the 20-plus points and defensive attention he'll command nightly. Rose is capable of picking up the scoring slack, as 20 first-half points proved, but creating and getting his teammates involved is his preferred plan of action. Having to force up shots, as Rose was forced to do throughout the fourth quarter with little else working, caught up with Chicago late.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, naturally, focused on his defense. The Thunder shot 41 percent, a number the rookie skipper can live with. The 59 points in the opening half, not so much.
"We still needed to work more on defense," Thibodeau said. "It's not quite there yet. Even though we played really good tonight, we still have a lot to work on."
The Bulls managed just 13 points in the final period, as a slim lead became a double-digit deficit in the last two minutes. Brooks told his troops that three straight defensive stops would turn the game around. He got that and then some, with shutdown defender Thabo Sefolosha and backup center Serge Ibaka playing a huge role in that department.
"We couldn't ask for a better effort than we had defensively," Brooks said.
Rose finished with 28 points, but he needed 31 shots. He missed 17 of his last 23 attempts. And, perhaps more telling of the lack of consistent support from his teammates, Rose only managed two assists in the second half.
"He's a great player," Westbrook said after an evening of 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. "He's going to make tough shots. We just wanted to contest and make it as hard as we could."
Brooks estimated that eight of Rose's 20 first-half points were of the "easy" variety. He earned the other 12. The Bulls, overall, were just as efficient, shooting better than 52 percent in the first half. Harassing Rose in the second half would have a trickle-down effect on Chicago's entire attack.
Part of that strategy wasn't just challenging Rose's shots with added gusto. Westbrook's relentless driving at the rim proved critical, as Rose had to check out with four fouls less than five minutes into the third quarter.
"I haven't been in foul trouble like that since my rookie year," Rose said.
Rose admitted to getting geeked up to face Westbrook. The two know each other well, sharing the same agent and on-court explosiveness. They shared laughs during stoppages of play, only to turn the fire back on once the clock started rolling.
"We love to ball," Rose said. "He knows if you don't come out to play, it's going to be tough. And I know if you don't come out to play, it's going to be tough.
"The both of us playing hard definitely rubbed off on everyone else. You saw how intense it was out there."
Thunder forward Jeff Green certainly noticed.
"It's fun watching two guys like that," he said. "They make each other better."
Westbrook brought the sellout crowd to its feet on several occasions, including a coast-to-coast tomahawk slam late in the first quarter that ESPN couldn't help but replay throughout the night. Westbrook also had more help than Rose, with the luxury of a full squad and the league's premier offensive force.
Kevin Durant found the sledding just as tough as Rose after the first quarter, but last year's scoring champ still sloshed his way to 30 points. Green added 21 for good measure.
But most of the talk coming in centered on Westbrook and Rose, and it's a shame they'll go at each other only twice in the regular season. While this isn't going to be Bird-Magic, you won't find many positional rivalries outside of Kobe or LeBron better than Westbrook-Rose.
They've known it. We do now.
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