- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- He can't win.
We know it. Carlos Boozer knows it. When he plays well, we want to know why he doesn't do it more often. But until he can be a player the Chicago Bulls can count on consistently and -- let's be honest -- do it against Miami in the playoffs, you're always going to wonder if the crowd is yelling "Booze" or "Boo."
And when he goes off as he did Tuesday night during a 118-97 Bulls victory over the Phoenix Suns, scoring 26 points in the first half (on 12-of-15 shooting) and finishing with a game- and season-high 31, you have to consider how it happened. In this case, against a defense about as imposing as the worst Western Conference stereotype, which is to say not imposing at all.
The Bulls shot 72 percent in the first quarter, 60 percent through three and finished with 31 assists and just six turnovers with Derrick Rose in street clothes, the second straight game he has missed because of a badly sprained toe.
The Bulls should consider themselves lucky that Rose's injury comes during a break in the schedule -- with the beatable Suns, Cavaliers, Bobcats and Nets on the calendar through next Monday. Then again, so many teams in the NBA look disorganized and sloppy so far in this shortened season, it's hard to keep track.
But there is no good reason, especially with Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson back in the lineup, that Rose, who still has swelling in the toe, should come back before the Bulls' Jan. 25 game against the Indiana Pacers.
"He's fine," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Rose's reaction to sitting out. "He's going to do what's in the best interest of the team."
It certainly makes it easier when the team performs as it did Tuesday, washing away the bitter taste of Monday's inferior effort at Memphis.
"It was a focus for us," Boozer said. "We came in with a great sense of urgency to bounce back. The great thing about this league, especially this season, is you get a chance to play right away."
It also makes it easier for the Bulls to rest Rose when Boozer comes to play, Watson (23 points on 8-of-12 shooting and five assists) is shooting well and Hamilton is doing what he was brought here to do.
Hamilton, who missed 10 of the past 11 games with a pulled groin muscle, contributed as much as anyone to Tuesday's victory.
"I just told him he makes a big difference because he presents us with another option offensively and with his experience, he makes the right play," Boozer said of Hamilton, who finished with 11 points and six assists. "If he's open, he shoots it. If he's doubled, he makes the right pass to the guy who's open.
"And the other team's defensive scheme is to make him not get the shot, so it gives other guys open shots. You saw how many open shots I had. Joakim Noah (13 points, 12 rebounds) had open shots early. And it makes our offense a lot crisper."
Boozer's performance was reminiscent of the Bulls' Jan. 9 victory against the Detroit Pistons. In that game, he had a game-high 23 points and eight rebounds, most coming off pick and rolls with Rose, while taking advantage of double-teams on the league's reigning MVP.
Tuesday night, Boozer's baskets came in a variety of ways, mostly off medium- and short-range jumpers and often by way of assists from Hamilton.
"I loved the way the ball hopped [with Hamilton on the floor], it was not sticking anywhere," Thibodeau said. "It was moving freely, and once we got into a rhythm, we were able to knock some shots down."
Another benefit was that Noah seemed to feed off Boozer's energy offensively, though he wouldn't go quite that far, saying only, "Carlos played great tonight, he shot the hell out of the ball. He was very active."
While it's a stretch and, well, inaccurate, to say as Boozer goes, so do the Bulls, more performances like Tuesday's will have them more closely resembling the imposing sort of team with the imposing sort of depth that merited the preseason predictions of greatness.
It doesn't hurt Boozer's stock, either.
Whereas a strong game by Noah makes you believe he has taken to heart all the recent criticism, Boozer has no bank account of goodwill built in a Bulls uniform. He can't really win until he does this in playoffs. Against Miami. And the Bulls go to the Finals.
But what a victory that would be.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.