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By Sam Smith | 4.19.2015 | 1:55 a.m. CT
How’s that go, Saturday in the United Center being one small step for a team and one giant leap for a kind young man. Yes, the Bulls with their 103-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in their opening playoff game are shooting for the moon.
“Felt good (be out there again), felt normal,” said Derrick Rose, who scored 23 points to complement 25 points for backcourt mate Jimmy Butler as the Bulls led by double digits for most of the last 18 minutes. “I’m grateful to be playing with the teammates I have right now; they allow me to play the way I normally play. It’s an honor. I’m really fortunate because I think anywhere else it wouldn’t be the same. They’re giving me motivation, pushing me and it feels good.
“When you miss a long period of time playing a sport you love, playing or dedicating your life to your craft or your art, it comes out in a weird way,” Rose said about a few emotional reactions from him, uncommon given his usually laconic game nature. “I didn’t mean to do it on purpose. It just came out. When you step on the floor all the thoughts (of previous misfortune) have to be in the back of your mind. You have to have a clear mind. You’ve got to be very confident and believe in the work you put in to get back on the floor. I only had three goals tonight, to have fun, to have no expectations and to compete.” Rose and the Bulls did that effectively against an aggressive Bucks team that hung around pretty well until midway through the third quarter. But this Bulls team has too much offense for a Bucks team that relies on defense, though it didn’t seem much that way in an uncharacteristic 60-51 Bulls first half.
“The first quarter was fool’s gold for us,” bemoaned Bucks coach Jason Kidd. “That first quarter set a bad tone for us. We gave up 60 points [in the half]. We are not an offensive team and rely on our defense. We fell into a trap scoring in the first quarter. We thought we could out score Chicago. That is what put us behind.”
The Bucks never could quite recover against an impressive and efficient Bulls effort, 30 assists on 38 field goals, a 52-41 rebounding edge and 12 of 32 threes. The Bulls did commit 19 turnovers that led to 25 Bucks points, which is the Bucks’ primary offense. But the Bulls had Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson all with double figure rebounds, Gibson seven on the offensive boards, and the signs once again after three years of pain and heartache that perhaps they can begin to plot and plan and dream again.
“As long as we stay healthy and everyone keeps his confidence high I think it’s going to be tough for teams to key in on any one guy because we have so many guys who do so many things well,” said Butler, whose 25 points was a playoff career high. “So if we just keep playing team basketball and give our all for the team, we will continue to win.”
It’s perhaps the sort of thing Bulls players have been saying the last few years, though with much less conviction.
That’s why Rose with the 23 points, seven assists, three of seven three pointers and crucial scoring stretches in the second quarter with darting, zig-zag drives and in the third quarter with threes again makes this Bulls team one that can consider reaching the heights of the game.
“I think we have a great opportunity,” said Noah. “We just have to stay humble and hungry. Derrick played really well. It was so good to see him competing the way he competed. He told me, ‘Tonight it was love of the game.' That means a lot because I know he has gone through so much. He had a lot of positive energy. He led the team great. He was really into it. That’s definitely a plus for our team. His positive spirit definitely led us tonight.”
The obvious story Saturday was Rose back in a playoff game for the first time since his gruesome ACL injury April 28, 2012. In an eerie parallel, Rose finished Saturday’s game with the same amount of points and threes and the identical final score. Rose walked off the floor, though, this time, almost skipping, actually. It means everything for this Bulls team.
It was evident in slicing drives that eviscerated a good Bucks’ defense, with scoring runs that make all the difference even though they are not at the end of the game.
Rose scored six straight Bulls points on a blow by, a floater and a reverse in the second quarter to match the Bucks as they were making a run. It’s the sort of thing not much noticed, but it was those offensive contributions the Bulls were so badly missing, someone to carry the team through inevitable in game droughts, which every team has. There’s only so much good teamwork and passing can do. You need a playmaker, especially in the playoffs. Rose then closed the wild first half for these teams with a two handed slam dunk on a Butler pass and splitting the defense for another reverse.
Rose was so good, so sublime in his excellence, that he didn’t even realize the Bucks were trapping and double and triple teaming him. That’s greatness. Rose said after the game he wasn’t doubled and had so much room to operate. What game was he watching?
Then in the third quarter after the Bucks started fast on a nice Kidd adjustment to go to leading scorer Khris Middleton with 18 points and the Bucks within 62-59, Rose made three three pointers sandwiched around a terrific Gasol lob to Butler, who tip passed it to an exuberant Noah for a dunk. That sequence gave the Bulls a 77-66 lead with 4:33 left in the third quarter. And the Bulls would lead by double digits just about the rest of the game.
Rose’s passing was superb; sure he still jumps in the air too much. But no one can make the cross court skip passes with such power and accuracy. And there was no mismatch problem this time with Michael Carter-Williams, who flummoxed the Bulls without Rose in Milwaukee’s win earlier this month.
“We haven’t had him in the playoffs for awhile now,” noted Gibson of Rose. “It feels so good. Just to have one of our leaders back; it was a great feeling seeing him take over at times, be aggressive. But in the beginning guys didn’t understand he wanted the (defensive) matchup (with Carter-Williams). He told coach what he wanted to do on defense and he did a great job on defense against a great player.”
So did the Bulls team, especially in the second half when they held the Bucks to 40 points and 34.9 percent shooting.
It’s also why I don’t expect to see Nikola Mirotic much in this series. Mirotic played about 13 minutes and had five points and five rebounds; he’ll have good offensive numbers. But this is going to devolve into more of a defensive struggle, and it’s clear Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will lean more on Gibson, who was excellent.
Gibson sustained a minor knee problem late in the game, but he seemed fine afterward and there was no indication he would be limited. He had eight points and 11 rebounds in just under 25 minutes. But he’s a little things guy that means so much to the big guys. Gibson laid some crushing screens on Bucks players that enabled the Bulls to get clear shots, plays you don’t see with so many teams that use isolation play. Noah and Gibson, especially, are excellent screeners, the little things that make a big difference in rugged and physical games. The Bulls needed it to get off to a good start in Game 1, so Thibodeau went to Gibson.
“Coach told us we’ve got to screen and step and get guys open,” said Gibson. “The games are going to be won on the defensive side and rebounding the ball. Look at the game we lost to this team; it came down to the rebounding. They got into us. We have real unselfish point guards, real unselfish wings. Our job was to get them open on screens.
“I was locked into the details Thibs wants us to do,” said Gibson. “I try to lock into the small things. He basically said we need to get guys open. I took it upon myself to get Mike (Dunleavy) open, get Derrick open. Anything I could do to get guys open because I know they are going to make the right play. They’re going to make the right shot; just try to bring energy.”
It was Dunleavy who basically closed it out with back to back threes after the Bucks got within 93-83 with 5:05 left. First it was a beautiful sequence with six passes and three Noah screens, Rose with the last pass for the assist. Then it was Rose dribbling into the left corner where three Bucks converged. Rose jumped, hung and blazed a 40 foot cross court pass to Dunleavy in the right corner for another three. That was about it. Though not before Rose had his fourth three waved off on a Gasol offensive foul and then fired out ahead to a streaking Butler after a Zaza Pachulia miss for a fast break layup, Rose’s third straight assist for a 101-85 Bulls lead and the game with 3:04 left.
It was out of this world stuff, at least for the playoff Bulls these last three unhappy years.
No one’s ever going to relax with Rose after all that has occurred, including this season’s February meniscus surgery. So when Rose went down with 7:43 left in the first quarter after Carter-Williams appeared to try to stop Rose sticking out his knee, there was more of “oh no” as Rose played a few more possessions and seemed to turn to Thibodeau and ask out. It was curious when Tony Snell came in, leaving no true point guard in the game. Aaron Brooks would come in about a minute later and have another big boost with 13 points in 19 minutes.
Rose would later say he just was tired and taking a bit of a rest when he went down. OK, if he says so. But when he came back into the game in the second quarter after some backstage stationary bike riding, Rose blew by Carter-Williams so fast he didn’t have time to stick out his knee this time. Rose did it twice more soon thereafter, crossing over and dribbling through the traps even before the Bucks’ athletic defenders could react.
The Bulls also delivered some messages of their own. Gibson got a flagrant foul, though he seemed to be just playing aggressively. Rose shot the three with confidence.
“He makes everything easier for everybody,” said Butler. “I don’t really have to do much. Whenever he has the ball, I just have to spot up and make some shots. And get out in transition. That’s what he does well for our team is take the pressure off everybody. I think he makes the right play every time.”
And then there was Gasol dribbing in at the end of the third quarter, losing the ball as he fell, but then gathering it while on his back and still passing to Gibson for a slam dunk and 86-75 lead after three. And then Gasol crossing himself afterward. A little prayer never hurts.
“It was good to have him out there,” agreed Thibodeau about Rose. “It has been a long process for him; obviously he makes our team a lot different. He’s had set backs throughout the course of the season; he bounces back each time. Time does go by quickly. You're talking about a guy now who is sort of in the middle of his career. He's been through a lot; you're 22 years old, you're the MVP of the league and there weren't many bumps in the road. He's hit a few bumps and he's gotten through those. That's a good thing for him, that he was able to get through it. I think it's made him stronger. Hopefully he can build on that and we can take off from here."
All the way to the outer limits of their ambitions. One small step at a time for a man, leading perhaps to a giant leap for his team.