Dan Mcgrath
Tuesday December 22nd, 2009

The physique is markedly different -- not as tall, a little thicker -- and the all-out, purposefully desperate style of play defied easy description. But the effect was unmistakably Jordan-like as Derrick Rose took over the game during a rare Chicago Bulls victory over the high-flying Atlanta Hawks in overtime last week.

Rose scored 16 of his team-high 32 points in the fourth quarter and extra period, and he clearly wanted the ball in his hands in the moments that mattered, adding six assists with no turnovers. From the tucked-away box where he watches his creation, Bulls VP John Paxson breathed a sigh of relief that was audible throughout the United Center, then closed his eyes in silent supplication. Please, basketball gods, let this be the start of something.

Unanswered prayers. Two nights later, Rose went for 22 points and seven assists in a scintillating first half, helping the Bulls open a 35-point lead on the defenseless Sacramento Kings. Even in a season of freakish misadventures, it was impossible to envision them blowing it, but they did. And Rose was culpable, a no-show in the fourth quarter as the Kings outscored the Bulls 33-10 and fell one point short of matching the biggest comeback in NBA history.

They'll settle for the win, thank you. Tyreke Evans, Rose's successor as Memphis' one-and-done point guard and the favorite to follow him as NBA Rookie of the Year, made it happen with 11 fourth-quarter points, the better man on this night. Boos -- loud, nasty ones -- accompanied the Bulls as they left the court.

More than a decade has passed since Michael Jordan put a glorious exclamation point on the Bulls six-title dynasty with the jump shot that slew the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. (OK, he pushed off on Byron Russell to clear some shooting space, but you didn't really expect an official's whistle to spoil that moment, did you?) The fingers-down, hold-the-pose flourish with which M.J. sealed the deal symbolized the end of an era -- it would never again be this good for Chicago hoops fans. That's fine -- M.J. was an irreplaceable icon, a once-in-a-lifetime package of skill, effort and will that changed the way a city felt about itself.

But there was no obvious reason for the Bulls to lose their way as confoundingly as they did with Jordan's departure. Since winning six NBA titles in eight years, they have made four playoff appearances in the last 11 -- the same number as the Cubs over that span. They've won one playoff series -- same as the Cubs.

No matter how glorious your legacy, when you hire Tim Floyd as your coach, think Ron Mercer is a good idea, draft Marcus Fizer high, carry Kornel David on your roster and acquire then ignore athletic marvel Shannon Brown, in time you're going to be thought of as the basketball equivalent of the Cubs, Chicago's poster children for futility.

Rare back-to-back visits by the Celtics and Lakers this month underscored the point. From Jerry West to Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant, from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Kevin Garnett, hope never seems lost for long with the NBA's two centerpiece franchises. The Bulls, by contrast, had little to show for their pre-Jordan incarnation, and nothing to brag about since M.J. left.

Derrick Rose is supposed to change that.

The Bulls lucked into him, winning the lottery after the 2007-08 season, when a 33-49 finish ended a three-season playoff run. Scott Skiles saw it coming and walked away at Christmas, leaving a jumbled mess of mismatched parts for interim successor Jim Boylan. When he couldn't sort it out, the Bulls turned to Vinny Del Negro, whose lack of NBA coaching chops was offset by the 12 years of gritty, heady playing experience -- some of it at point guard which he could call upon in instructing Rose, a natural, pass-first point guard built along the explosive lines of Jason Kidd and Deron Williams.

Progress was immediately discernible. As Rose was playing his way to Rookie of the Year recognition, a late-season spare-parts exchange brought Brad Miller and John Salmons. It not only cleared salary-cap space, it made the Bulls a playoff team, and a riveting seven-game first-round series against the Garnett-less Celtics evoked the Jordan era in terms of packed-house excitement. Boston won, but the individual battle between Rose and Boston's Rajon Rondo foretold a compelling rivalry, something for the Bulls to build on. Instead, they have settled back into middle-of-the-pack mediocrity, a playoff contender only because the Eastern Conference is awash in similarly flawed material.

What happened?

The decision to let Ben Gordon walk as a free-agent looks like a poor one; Gordon is a bona fide scorer with stretch-the-floor shooting range and the confidence (bordering on arrogance) to create something with the shot clock ticking down. The Bulls believed a full season of Salmons and a healthy Luol Deng would compensate for Gordon's lost firepower, but neither player has the range or the will to light up the night the way Gordon did. And the offense has suffered -- the Bulls are scoring just 91 points per game and have surpassed 100 three times.

Kirk Hinrich's continuing decline is a perplexing mystery. Heavy minutes early in his career appear to have worn down the sixth-year guard. He has been hurt a lot, and his best-guy defensive responsibilities sap his energy. But a Kirk Hinrich who shoots 36.5 percent from the floor and 31.6 on three-pointers isn't helping as much as he should be, especially when fellow deep threat Salmons (38.6 percent) is misfiring on nearly two-thirds of his shots.

Third-year center Joakim Noah is a max-effort workman who has become a fan favorite with his relentless rebounding and defensive energy. But he offers no post presence on the offensive end, leaving the Bulls no inside threat to counter those increasingly frequent nights when their shots don't fall.

Tyrus Thomas, due back from a broken arm, will be another body for a threadbare rotation that consisted of seven men against the Knicks last week. Whether the enigmatic fourth-year forward can harness his obvious physical talent and add to what the Bulls have been getting from useful rookie Taj Gibson remains an open question.

So it goes, Derrick. Any time you want to step it up. Finally over the sore heel that dogged him throughout training camp, Rose appeared to balk at Del Negro's recent suggestion that he do so, saying it's against his point-guard nature to look for his own shot, that he's more comfortable and effective creating for others.

But when others can't convert the opportunities, he creates for them. Rondo outplayed Rose in the Boston game, clearly benefitting from a superior supporting cast. Rose had 21 points, six assists and just two turnovers in 33 minutes against the Lakers, but went missing in the fourth quarter as the Bulls managed 14 points and watched the Lakers pull away.

"Does he scare you in the fourth quarter?" asked a scout as he packed away his reports after the game. His dismissive tone answered the question.

The Atlanta game was another story: The Hawks had won six in a row, including a 118-83 throttling of the Bulls in Atlanta 10 days earlier. The Bulls trailed by nine with 4:12 remaining, but they didn't lose this time because Rose wouldn't let them.

They need more of that, and more often.

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