Not Bulls' best, but good enough

CHICAGO -- As Derrick Rose sat in the locker room before the Chicago Bulls' game with Memphis on Friday night, it appeared that he was trying to make his shooting hand silky smooth. Either that or he was auditioning for a horror movie.

But the wax mold and plastic bag on his right hand wasn't a paraffin manicure or preparation for "House of Wax III," Rose explained with a laugh, just a way to ease pain and stiffness.

Not so funny.

When Rose shot 1-of-7 in the first quarter and then didn't attempt a shot in the second quarter until a missed 3-pointer with four minutes remaining in the half, you had to wonder if the hand was an issue.

"It was wax to loosen your joints and make your hand feel good," he said after he and the Bulls finally pulled out a 99-96 victory. "It was just something I tried. I guess it worked."

What worked, more than anything, was Rose's will to win, some timely tips by Luol Deng, slick passing by Kyle Korver and a team that is mature enough now to gut out games like this one.

"It was one of those grinder-type games," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "I didn't like our defense. Nothing was really going our way, but we did whatever was necessary down the stretch to win the game."

The Bulls were worried about this one. Of course, that's a little hard to swallow, so spoiled are we by a team that had combined for 246 points in its previous two victories, both by 30-plus points.

But the Grizzlies were coming off three straight wins, most notably an impressive three-point victory at Boston on Wednesday, and were fighting to hold on to the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference. And they were chippy; Tony Allen jawed with the United Center crowd while his team drew three technicals on the night (to the Bulls' two) as the Grizzlies built a nine-point first-quarter lead.

So dissatisfied was Thibodeau with his team's defensive energy early on that he uncharacteristically pulled three of his starters -- Carlos Boozer, Keith Bogans and Joakim Noah -- within a minute of each other with about four minutes left in the first quarter.

"I just thought we were really flat to start the game," Thibodeau said. "I thought they were outworking us so I wanted to try and get some energy into the game."

As usual, the Bulls' bench provided the necessary spark, primarily Taj Gibson, who scored six points, had five rebounds and blocked a shot in his 4:17 contribution to finish off the quarter.

But it was seldom pretty for the Bulls, save for just enough big shots at key moments and some savvy readjusting by Rose.

Despite draining a 17-foot jumper with 1.4 seconds left in the half to give the Bulls a 49-46 lead at halftime, Rose mostly relied on guile, compensating for an off jump-shooting night by getting to the free throw line and at one point hitting nine straight in the second half.

"That's what I liked," Thibodeau said. "He didn't get discouraged."

Nor did the Bulls, who kept a shaky game close, clamped down defensively when it counted most and ultimately got out of the way of Rose, who naturally scored the final six points, including -- ho-hum -- a driving left-handed layup over 7-foot-1, 265-pound Marc Gasol to seal the victory.

"He's the MVP, right?" said Korver, whose only 3-pointer of the night gave the Bulls a 93-91 lead with 3:44 remaining and nearly set the building on its side.

"[Rose] is such a special player, he keeps getting better and better. He didn't have his rhythm all night, but when it counted, he was there."

Rose finished with a hard-earned 24 points on 6-of-22 shooting, 0-for-5 from 3-point range and 12-of-13 from the foul line, along with seven assists. Deng had 23 points and six rebounds.

The Bulls, winners of 11 of their past 12 games, will now drive up I-94 to Milwaukee on Saturday with a two-game lead over Boston for the top seed in the Eastern Conference after the Celtics' loss at home to Charlotte.

"There is no space right now," Rose said. "We're just trying to win every game. Even if it's by one or two points, we'll take it."

More than likely, he'll take it.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.