CHICAGO -- The Bulls welcomed Derrick Rose back to the lineup and brought an end to the Pacers' 9-0 start to the season with a surprisingly easy 110-94 victory.
Derrick Rose looked like Derrick Rose
With less than four minutes remaining in the Bulls' win Monday over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Derrick Rose drove the length of the court before converting an impressive twisting lay-up. It was the sort of play that helped earn him the NBA's most valuable player award in 2011, an encouraging moment in an otherwise poor offensive start to Rose's 2013-14 season. Moments later, Rose, grimacing, sat on the bench while receiving medical attention.
That driving lay-up delivered the Bulls' 96-81 victory, but it also came with a cost: Rose injured his hamstring. After a three-day layoff (Rose did not participate in practices), the point guard missed Chicago's blowout win Friday night at Toronto, a game he vowed to play in earlier in the week. His status for Saturday night's showdown with the undefeated Indiana Pacers seemed uncertain, but the general sense -- given the importance of a game against a division rival -- was that Rose would play.
He did, and it was obvious from the opening tip that Rose felt no ill effects from the injury. He attacked the Pacers' top-ranked defense every which way: penetrating into the lane, working his mid-range game and pulling up from beyond the arc. At the end of the first half, Rose had 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting (including 4-of-5) on threes.
Through the first six games of the season, it was clear Rose was still finding his sea legs after missing all of last season with a knee injury. He looked as explosive as he did before the injury, but it was clear Rose's offensive game -- from lay-ups to mid-range jumpers to three-point shots, and everything in between -- needed some fine-tuning before he could recapture his All-Star form.
If Rose didn't reach that level Saturday night against Indiana, a team allowing a league-best 88.8 points per 100 possessions, he got pretty close. While opposing defenders had willingly given Rose space and gone under ball screens through the early part of this season, Rose's ability to knock down long-range shots Saturday could force a different approach. Defenders will be compelled to play him tighter, which runs the risk of lane penetration, from which Rose could attack or kick to open shooters. "The shots they were giving me -- they were going under screens. I don't know why they were doing that," Rose said afterward.
When Rose is able to consistently knock down threes and long twos, he's one of the toughest matchups in the league. Few players not named LeBron James can reasonably slow him down. George Hill, the player tasked with matching Rose for most of Saturday's game, is not one of those players. The end result was Rose's best offensive game (20 points on 7-of-16 shooting and 6-of-11 on threes) since returning from knee surgery, and perhaps for the Bulls, a pivot point in an otherwise lackluster start to the season.
Pacers prove to be human
Before the game, Pacers coach Frank Vogel said he was not craving a "teaching moment" for his then-unbeaten team.
Saturday night's blowout loss might not have been a "teaching moment," per se -- Vogel probably would rather not watch this game tape -- but it did prove at least one of two things: 1) The Bulls' offense was rolling, or 2) The Pacers' defense, contrary to statistical evidence, can be broken down.
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle -- the Bulls were great on offense, shooting 50.6 percent from the field and hitting 11-of-19 three-point attempts. The Pacers defense, though, left something to be desired. Indy entered Saturday yielding a staggeringly low 88.8 points per 100 possessions, having held all nine of its previous opponents to 91 points or fewer.
"They're tough," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were fresh off a 96-80 drubbing in Toronto, wherein all five starters scored in double figures and the team shot 7-for-16 from beyond the arc. And that was without Rose.
The Bulls carried their hot shooting into Saturday, and Rose, in his most impressive offensive performance of the season to date, elevated the offense to a different level -- one they needed to exploit the Pacers' stingy defense. It's highly unlikely (more like impossible) that Chicago -- which also got 23 points from Luol Deng and 13 from Carlos Boozer -- will be able to maintain this torrid offensive pace, and it won't be surprising in the least if Indiana bounces back from this game to lock down its next opponent, the New York Knicks.
It's not wise to draw sweeping conclusions from one game, and even less so in a game in which one team is hitting an abnormally high percentage of shots. "When the ball goes in, it looks a lot better," Thibodeau said.
If shots like this are falling, the best advice for the opposing team is to tip its cap and go home.
Yeah, it was just one of those nights for the Bulls.
The Pacers-Bulls rivalry will be fun to watch this year
Thibodeau may not admit that a rivalry exists between the Pacers and the Bulls -- "Ah, you guys get into all that," he said to reporters before the game -- but be assured, these teams do not like each other.
One example came last week, when Pacers forward Paul George, speaking to reporters after his team's 97-80 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, said the following to NBA.com.
"We want to step away from that shadow as the 'little brothers' of the division. [The Bulls'] success is the Michael Jordan era. This is a new age, this is a new team. It's ours till they take it." Bulls guard Jimmy Butler retorted, telling the Chicago Sun-Times , "Some people pay attention to [George's comments] around here. I don't pay attention. Everyone has their own opinion. But I know every time they go up against us, it isn't always the same story."
It seems clear, despite Thibodeau's comments to the contrary, that there's a little something extra on the line anytime the Pacers and Bulls face off.
"For us, we know that when we play them, it's going to be a tough game," Rose said. "Every night we know that we play them, they're going to be the ones talking. We can't really feed into that."
With Saturday night's win, the Bulls moved within three games of the 9-1 Pacers. The battle will cool for now as the teams won't meet again until they face-off twice more during a three-day stretch in March. Playoff seeding and division bragging rights likely will be on the line, making the dates must-see events.