CHICAGO -- The last time Derrick Rose played a meaningful game against Boston he walked off a loser. His exit came in Game 7 of an epic 2009 first-round series. He was just a kid then, a 20-something playing alongside a bunch of 20-somethings who succeeded with sheer power and athleticism -- and, of course, Ben Gordon's white-hot jump shot.
Rose and his teammates are still young but they are children no more. Joakim Noah, 26, is a high-energy center and one of the game's best rebounders. Luol Deng, 25, has expanded his game to beyond the three-point line while maintaining that old school mid-range jumper and slippery style that made him dangerous around the rim. In Thursday night's 97-81 battering of Boston, Deng scored 23 points, making nine of his 18 shots, including three of six from three-point range.
Rose? He is, simply, the MVP. There are a lot of qualified candidates in this year's field -- Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, just to name a few -- but the 22-year-old Rose is clearly at the top of the list. Consider his work against Boston and versus Rajon Rondo, a point guard considered by many to be his peer. In the first quarter, Rose blew past Rondo and powered up a shot over Kevin Garnett to finish a broken play at the rim. He followed that up with a soft, cross-court pass to Keith Bogans that Bogans quickly turned into a three. Rose finished the quarter in style, breezing past Rondo again and squeezing an acrobatic layup between the outstretched arms of Glen Davis and Nenad Krstic.
Want more? In the second quarter, Rose scooped up an outlet pass and cut a path to the rim like a missile slicing through trees. Later, he banked in a runner from the baseline -- yes, the baseline -- that was an impossibly angled shot from an impossible-to-defend player. But he saved his best for last: With the Bulls up by 14 and the clock ticking toward five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Rose coolly advanced on the three-point line, pulled up in front of Boston's Delonte West and buried a game-clinching three. He scored 30 points against the Celtics and each bucket seemed to be of a different variety.
"They are not chanting 'MVP' for nothing," said Kevin Garnett. "His play is doing all his talking."
Indeed, Rose is a modest superstar. He's the favorite to win the MVP and probably should be at the top of the list for Most Improved -- his three-point percentage is up seven points this season -- but he prefers to shift the conversation to his team. Because they are pretty good, too. Tom Thibodeau was an assistant on Boston's 2008 championship team, and this 2011 Bulls team plays a lot like them. They deflect anything within arm's reach and they contest everything else. They hit you when you come through the lane and they
"When you see the Bulls, I think you see Thibs," said Doc Rivers. "You see his toughness. Thibs is in every single play. The players buy into it. You can see it's not phony."
Boston is still tough, too. Just not as tough as they used to be. The fear of the Celtics is gone, as ex-Celtic Brian Scalabrine confirmed when he told a Boston radio station that Chicago's confidence soared when news of the Kendrick Perkins trade broke. "They're different," Rose said, a reality the Celtics are now looking square in the eye. Whiny sentences that start with "If Shaq were healthy" are worthless; because there is little a 39-year-old center with a busted wheel could do against this relentless Bulls attack anyways. Not to mention The Diesel has played exactly 5 ½ minutes since the All-Star break.
No, Boston has to search within itself for answers. The Bulls pounded the Celtics in the paint (44-22) despite getting just two points from Noah. When Chicago ratcheted up the pressure, Boston simply stopped passing, choosing instead to shoot well-defended jump shots at the rim or dump the ball inside for hastily called post-ups. Glen Davis (eight points on 1-of-8 shooting) endured a particularly bad night while Rondo (seven points, six assists) wasn't far behind.
"We've got to play with more grit than we have been playing with," Garnett said. "We got our ass kicked tonight. I haven't recalled that in a while."
These two teams won't meet again for a while, perhaps not until the conference finals begin in late May. In between, Boston will have to get by Miami in the second round while Chicago will likely have to deal with Dwight Howard and the Magic. It's reasonable to say that both teams will get there, just like it's reasonable to wonder if the result will be any different when they do. The Bulls will be the same team, just one with the confidence that comes with a couple of series wins under its belt. And they will still have Rose, whose confidence facing Rondo and the Celtics is evident. Standing in front of his locker, Rose was asked how his team felt about playing Boston.
"We know that we can beat them," Rose said. "They know that we're going to play hard. We're a team that keeps on fighting."