Chicago’s All-Star send-off brought the comforts of familiarity.
Chicago’s All-Star send-off brought the comforts of familiarity. What had been a month of rough, inconsistent basketball ended with Derrick Rose in top form. The former MVP logged 41 high-usage minutes against the Cavaliers, slicing up Cleveland’s defense en route to a 113-98 victory. The win itself was Chicago’s fourth straight, though the first of the bunch over a potential playoff team.
Rose came prepared. From opening tip he played the part of a committed driver, pushing past Kyrie Irving (and later Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert) to score nimbly around the rim and entice the Cavaliers into fouls. He attacked to the point that 13 of his 24 field goal attempts came in the restricted area, nine of them makes. With a few jumpers and 6-of-6 shooting from the free throw line, Rose found his way to 30 points for the fourth time this season. Every one of those 30-point outings (the others against Portland, Washington, and Golden State) has come against a quality opponent. If nothing else, Rose has certainly gotten the most out of his forays back into high scoring.
Whether the full-speed Rose is “back” in any lasting sense is a question for another time, to be resolved as the Bulls shift into the next phase of their regular season schedule. Regardless, Rose was as brilliant on this night as we’ve seen in a long while. Gradually Chicago began to operate through Rose as it once had long ago: High pick-and-rolls, over and over, until Rose budged some defender loose. If there was an opening to the basket, Rose took it. If he needed to toss the ball back to the screening Pau Gasol at the elbow, he did. Gasol knocked down that shot just enough to keep the Bulls rolling and maintain the structure of their spacing.
Equally instrumental was Tony Snell, filling in for the injured Jimmy Butler as the Bulls’ floor-balancing shooter on the weak side. The Cavaliers challenged Snell in a way, rotating off of him freely to contain Rose’s dribble penetration and stall Gasol’s forward movement. Rose would probe until the defense refused to give and if not in a position to score himself, would whip a pass back out to Gasol or skipped straight away to Snell above the break on the opposite side of the floor. He delivered precisely as the Bulls needed him to, connecting on four of his six three-point attempts while scoring 22 overall. To be so productive while also drawing LeBron James (who scored 31 but committed eight turnovers) as his primary defensive assignment made for a swell showing; perhaps good enough to play a bigger role once the team is fully healthy.
Whenever the action seemed to stall, Joakim Noah found ways to keep the ball moving. With a screen here, he sprung free a ball handler or cutter. With a smart pass there, he found a teammate for a wide open look. Noah finished the game with a near triple double -- 10 points, 15 rebounds, and a season-high-tying seven assists -- for one of his most complete performances of the season. Again he thrived in the spaces between, creating opportunities for himself and others where there initially seemed to be none.
This is the optimal offensive balance that Chicago needs to sustain itself as it works out the defensive kinks. There are still problems aplenty in terms of the Bulls’ communication and execution on defense with Thursday being no exception. Too often a quality shooter was left free to fire or a lightly contested drive could have gone either way. What pulled through was an offensive outing in which so much seemed to work just as intended, from Rose flashing back to Snell stepping up. The Bulls are capable of this, and with Butler back, even more. They just don’t seem to strike the right mix as often or as consistently as they should.
That’s a problem, but not one beyond fixing. Whether Chicago plays well or poorly reminds of its incompleteness: Butler isn’t available, Noah isn’t healthy, Mike Dunleavy isn’t back and Rose isn’t fully activated. Those issues are slowly resolving themselves to whatever degree the regular season allows. The next week, then, is a godsend. Chicago won’t play again until visiting Detroit next Friday, a short flight from home. Then comes a seven-game homestand that keeps the Bulls in town until March 5. Perhaps finally we’ll see the Bulls as they were intended, in even more complete form than they showed on Thursday.