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By Sam Smith | 1.28.2015 | 5:45 a.m. CT
Tuesday, It was a little bit of June played out in January, a Golden State Warriors team fast breaking toward greatness and a Bulls team with the resume if not always the resolve. But this time the Bulls endured and excelled, perhaps as effectively as they have all season with a thrilling 113-111 overtime victory over the league’s winningest team.
It was accomplished for the Bulls with both drama and hope, Derrick Rose in his longest playing stint in three years making the game winning shot against a relentlessly swarming Warriors defense with 8.4 seconds remaining in overtime.
The Warriors would get yet another chance after cancelling out a Kirk Hinrich three in the last seconds of regulation with a Draymond Green offensive rebound score. But this time hot shooting Klay Thompson went long on a point blank runner as the buzzer shocked the home crowd. For the Bulls it was the sound of a heartbeat once again, a victory over the seemingly invincible Warriors, who had won 19 straight at home and now are 36-7.
“Good win,” said Joakim Noah with his highlight game of the season, an active and aggressive, ol’ Jo 18 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. “Just important not to get too high or low. I don’t want to say anything crazy and stink it up the next night. Against the best team in the league and we wanted to show we can compete against the best.”
Yes, if you can take out those guys at their place, with Thompson and Stephen Curry accounting for 51 points, then you’ve shown yet again, like against San Antonio and Dallas and Houston and Portland and Memphis that your team is capable of securing the big moments and the biggest times against the best. Because you’ve got some of the best.
There was Noah looking the friskiest he has this season and Pau Gasol with 18 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists. There was Nikola Mirotic back at small forward where he may stay awhile now with 12 points and seven rebounds and a pair of threes and Aaron Brooks and Taj Gibson with 10 each.
But it was Rose back where he belongs, where destiny has placed him, making the big play at the big moment, 30 points overall though on 13 for 33 shooting, a gruesome 11 turnovers and just one assist, which is an NBA first for that unique line. But it’s not numbers with players like Rose; it’s moments, the essence of sports, who can make the big play at the big time when the stakes are the most.
“Playing like myself,” said Rose. “I want the moments, I want that shot. My teammates gave me the ball to take the shot. Looks good on the resume. I’m not running away from those shots, I’m not turning them down. If anything my teammates are going to give me the ball to take the shot, so that’s a good feeling.”
Rose did so to finally take out the Warriors, though he showed so much more in one of the more unlikely wins for the Bulls, coming off a desolate performance at home Friday in a loss to Miami and coming into the NBA’s most raucous arena against what has been the league’s most dominant team this season. And without two starters, Mike Dunleavy missing his 14th game with an ankle injury and Jimmy Butler ill with the flu.
“This has been the story of our season,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Normal for us is two starters out. Whoever is out, next guy get in there and get the job done.”
And what a game to be missing Butler, the team’s leading scorer, though Rose is quickly getting ready to move past him. Against the most dynamic backcourt in the NBA, the league’s most potent offensive team and who blitzed the Bulls to start and had a seven-point lead four minutes into the game with three three pointers and a fast break dunk. Oracle Arena was reverberating; though it seemed just what was expected in the toughest test on this six-game Bulls road trip.
But the Bulls in the process may have gotten their star back.
Rose played 43 minutes, the most since his 2012 torn ACL and subsequent meniscus surgery that kept him out most of two years. He drove relentlessly into the citadel of the league’s best defense, which was dropping big men and helping with wing players, two and three and four defenders lining up Rose in their sights. After all, who else would they defend? Butler was out and Hinrich’s shot remained awry. Noah, though moving better, still hesitated to shoot; same with Hinrich after a few more air balls. The Warriors muscled up against Gasol with Green, forcing Gasol outside. Through the first half no Bull other than Rose had accumulated double digit points.
Rose knew the challenge with the defense, backcourt mate Butler out and the importance of the win. He was Derrick Rose again, just as the Bulls desperately need him to be. As Johnny Bach used to call the offense for Michael Jordan, the archangel offense: Save us Michael. Save us Derrick.
“Anybody can get momentum or the feeling you can beat anybody when you beat a team like this,” said Rose. “Our biggest thing was coming out and competing with them. They had a lot of transition fast break points, but we were making plays and kind of kept it close throughout the entire game.
“I knew going in when I saw Jimmy was out with illness it was going to force me to shoot the ball,” said Rose. “But I’ve been ready for it. Missed a lot of shots, but it’s not about that; it’s about winning.
“Just playing more games, getting a better feel for the game. Of course, I want my turnovers to go down. But it’s part of it,” said Rose. “If anything I can learn from a game like tonight and it should help me with conditioning. Missing two years, coming out and competing and if anyone was to see me play my goal is to make it look like I haven’t missed any years or missed a game. I guess it’s coming and I’ve just got to continue to work and put every game behind me.
“That’s the same shot I would take at the UC, anywhere, a step back jump shot,” said Rose of the overtime winner. “I’m comfortable with that shot. I was just happy we were able to get the game over. They were making tough plays. There was a stretch in overtime where both teams couldn’t score. We got through it, played well as a team.”
It wasn’t the Bulls most effective game or their most dominant. It was the kind of game you’ll get in the playoffs where you have to hold off an onslaught and regroup, take their best hit amidst the din and the daring, fall back and don’t let go of that rope and pull yourself back into the game. Which the Bulls did masterfully in trailing from 35 seconds into the game until late in the third quarter. And then taking a hit to open the fourth quarter, one of those instant Warriors runs that usually put a team away, 10-2 to start the fourth quarter to give the Warriors a 91-80 lead with 8:57 left in the game.
No way with Butler out, Noah, Hinrich and Mirotic passing up shots and Gasol having to find space on the outside was this to be any more than the latest Warriors victory march.
Not so fast.
“We feel comfortable with Derrick taking the responsibility in those moments,” said Gasol. “He definitely doesn’t hide and he’s very aggressive and tonight he was very aggressive all night long. It says a lot about his confidence level. How confident he is even if he had a tough shooting night and tough night offensively as far as taking care of the ball. He still looked comfortable shooting that last shot and knocking it down. So that’s important, a big factor and definitely gives us confidence going forward.”
Though Gasol also is a realist and the biggest winner on the team. He returns finally to meet the Lakers Thursday, with whom he won two NBA champions. So while Gasol was encouraged by the comeback win and his best combined play with Noah, he warned that the Bulls cannot continue to afford to just rise to these occasions when facing the best. Excellence requires routine as well.
“I think we have a resilient group, a group that is willing to fight and compete,” said Gasol. “We just can’t pick and choose when. That’s something we have to be aware of. We can’t come to Golden State and beat these guys the way they’ve been playing and how good they are and lose at home against teams under .500 teams; it’s something we have to do better. We can’t just be motivated against the good teams in this league. Otherwise your record is not good enough and you put yourself in a tougher position when you want to make a run. Definitely excited about tonight; good work, we fought, we competed, we never gave up, we gave ourselves a chance and got a very valuable win, but again we have to be consistent.”
That remains the test for this Bulls team, and especially against the more deliberate Eastern Conference teams. The Bulls moved to 30-17 and 17-6 on the road, 12-6 against Western teams. Heck with that conference disparity the Bulls are ready to move west.
That’s because the style seems to fit this Bulls team better. It’s a more offensive unit with Gasol and Mirotic and playing against Western Conference teams, the Bulls don’t seem to get bogged down in so many slow, stuck in mud starts. They’ll try to match the faster tempo, which enables their offense. Though the Warriors had a massive 31-8 edge in fast break points, the Bulls just speeding up the game gives them an advantage considering their size with Gasol and Noah.
“Their frontline is probably as long and tall as anybody in the NBA,” noted Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “The offensive boards got us for sure. They had 19, of course we had 15 ourselves; we scrapped. I don’t think it was a lack of effort. It was a great game and a fun game to be a part of. We felt like we had it won a couple of times; we just couldn’t close it. They did a good job of finishing the game out.”
It really was great stuff with the high octane Warriors game with three-point shooting, actually almost any kind of shooting. It raises the question even with their record of how playoff ready they can be. They get in transition after made baskets, shoot one against three. They’re so good they make many, which is dispiriting to the defense. But it’s a lot of jump shots, and they cooled off in the second half. Though the Bulls perimeter players, primarily Hinrich and Rose, did a much better job on Thompson and Curry, holding them to 12 of 32 shooting in the second half and overtime.
“Those guys are hard to guard,” said Thibodeau. “I thought (Rose) battled and played with a lot of toughness. He had a lot of resiliency. If he made a mistake, he came back the next time and got it right. That’s the type of mentality you have to have. He was attacking. He just worked through the game. They’re a great defensive team. He didn’t allow missed shots or turnovers take away from the belief that he could still make and take a big shot. That’s all a sign of his greatness and him working his way back to being the player that we all know he can be.”
Kerr also is creative on defense, which can catch teams in the regular season. The Warriors with so many players around 6-7 take unusual matchups, like Green against Gasol. Sometimes Thompson on Noah. They’ll try to goad you into going with questionable scorers because the mismatch looks so inviting, then run out on the fast break as you are trying to cross match in transition. But can you carry that through in the playoffs when the scouting is so much more intense in a series? It will make the Western Conference playoffs all the more intriguing.
But for a late January evening, it produces an intense and exhilarating game.
Rose got going early with a pair of threes and a dozen first half points as the Bulls dug in to withstand the initial assault of Thompson threes that barely ripple the netting with he and Curry working as one. They combined for 25 first quarter points in a 35-29 Golden State lead with Curry having seven assists. They screen on the run as the Bulls should do, which produces cleaner shots.
The Bulls pulled into a second quarter tie at 49 before falling back behind 56-51at halftime. Though like Rose’s play without apparent problems, it was also encouraging for the Bulls seeing Noah again and again on the offensive boards and finishing his shots. You could tell Thibodeau was thrilled as he opened his post game remarks commending Noah.
“We had a number of guys step up, but I thought Jo was great tonight, great,” said Thibodeau. “His best game of the year. He’s got a lot of pride. The last three or four days he’s been working like crazy, after games, before practice. He really played a great game. The extra work he put in and the way he played was terrific.”
“It was the first game we both played well at that level,” added seven-foot mate Gasol. “We kept a lot of balls alive, made big plays; we both had big games, huge contributions. It was good to see. Jo needed a game like this to get himself going and get a little more confidence in himself, so it’s been great. He was active from the get go. He stayed at it and made critical plays on offense and defense and it was good to see and now we’ve got to continue and keep it up.”
Rose came on with another big quarter after halftime and actually after three quarters was nine for 18 as the Bulls trailed 81-79. Though the turnovers were accumulating as the Warriors constantly squeezed Rose as their primary strategy, Rose did have several assist chances. But both Noah and Gasol couldn’t hang onto passes at the basket. Some were a bit hard, but you have to make that catch in the hands.
It looked like the Warriors would just pull away to yet another win with that fourth quarter start. But it was Rose again with back to back hard drives through a thicket of defenders and Gasol with a 12 footer to bring the Bulls within 99-98 with four minutes left. The Warriors went back ahead 105-100 with a little magic from Thompson and Curry again. And it seemed doom for the Bulls when Mirotic committed an offensive foul as Gasol was making a three. But the Bulls defense played up, forcing misses, Noah came through scoring on a Gasol pass and then trailing 105-104 with 18.9 seconds left, the Bulls trapped instead of fouling and Hinrich came up with a steal from Curry after Rose’s pressure.
Hinrich had been having a tough time shooting, and had just passed up a few shots, getting rid of the ball like it was on fire. But this time with 15.8 seconds left in regulation, Rose went back to Hinrich and Hinrich smoked the Warriors with a three for a 107-105 lead.
“I felt I couldn’t afford to turn down any shots,” said Hinrich. “I turned one down, was kind of tentative; so I just wanted to be ready. Derrick had confidence in me, threw me the ball and I just went up and shot it.”
The Bulls greeted Hinrich warmly with Gibson hugging him as he came to the bench. They knew how much Hinrich was struggling and uncertain with his shot. One more stop! But the Bulls couldn’t get it as the intense Green went over Noah and Gasol to put back an Andre Iguodala miss with 2.6 seconds left for the tie.
It was a brutal overtime period with players on both teams dragging. Gasol opened the scoring and Noah had a big tip in for a 111-109 lead. The Warriors tied it on a Curry run out and reverse. And then Rose looked around and took it himself, dribbling down the clock to about four seconds and making the 20 footer that would be the winner. Though the Bulls had to endure a curious finish when Iguodala tried a shot from behind the basket and wanted a foul call he didn’t get and Thompson missed that runner to close.
And Rose didn’t.
“A big positive for us to see Derrick getting better and better,” said Noah. “As the season’s gone on, the way he’s moving out there health wise, the way he’s into it, just great for our team, definitely a positive.”