Defiant Bulls take their cues from Rose
Despite injuries, team dynamic works and doesn't need tinkering -- or blockbuster deal
WASHINGTON -- More than 24 hours later the topic of fascination was still Sunday afternoon in Miami. The missed free throws, nearly stealing a win without Luol Deng and C.J. Watson, the contentiousness of the growing rivalry, the disappointment, the equality of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, maybe the entire NBA. The Chicago Bulls had just bounced back to beat the Washington Wizards on Monday night, but even that had to be viewed in the larger context of Bulls and Heat, Heat and Bulls.
So I asked Derrick Rose what he took from all that happened Sunday in Miami, and without hesitation he said, "That we're damn good."
While there are no moral victories in professional sports, there are no catastrophic losses in January either, not in the NBA anyway. Actually, the loss in Miami would have become much more annoying had the Bulls yielded to the combination of disappointment and the fatigue of back-to-back road games by losing to the hapless Wizards on Monday. That would have demonstrated a lack of what Carlos Boozer called, "The resilience you ought to have if you think you're a championship-caliber team."
Coach Tom Thibodeau implored the Bulls not to play like they were suffering from a South Beach hangover and Rose, still fuming at himself for those two missed free throws which might have meant victory, said that no matter how tired they were, the Bulls weren't losing to the Wizards. He guaranteed it not with his mouth but with his actions, with 35 points and eight assists even though, by game's end in Washington, Rose had played 85 minutes over the course of the two days.
The Bulls really are damn good, to win again without Deng and Richard Hamilton, with just a little relief help from Watson and Omer Asik. And they might be better off in the long run for losing to Miami because they know they played Miami dead-even on the road while short-handed and also because the sting from losing likely will be the annoying impetus to develop an even greater resolve. Damn good teams get and stay angry over the littlest things. The best sign of all for the Bulls on Monday was that they weren't mopey or feeling sorry for themselves. They were defiant, annoyed with themselves for not cashing in.
It's inescapable, comparing the two superstars from Sunday, Rose to LeBron James. Neither of the two most recent MVPs, after brilliant games overall, covered himself in glory at the foul line with the game on the line, both missing a pair. It's fair to ask why Rose doesn't face the chorus of ridicule LeBron faces when he doesn't come through in the fourth quarter. But there's also a very concrete answer.
Rose is unparalleled in his accountability, which is ultimately what people want to see/hear from superstars. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying LeBron isn't accountable. In fact, I've never seen LeBron point a finger at a coach or teammate, never seen him bail on responsibility. But nobody takes it on his shoulders quite like Rose. He blamed himself for the five-game Eastern Conference finals loss to Miami, and the missed free throws Sunday ate at him. Immediately Rose said, "It was me." He referred to the misses a dozen times in the locker room before and after the game, going as far as apologizing to the city of Chicago for the misses.
This isn't something you see routinely. Hell, in Chicago the Bears had a running back, Marion Barber, who didn't have the gumption to stand at his locker and say, "My bad" after a couple of killer mistakes against the Broncos. Couldn't do it, didn't do it, got bad advice, whatever. Barber left his teammates to answer for him, and he couldn't find it in him to be accountable.
Rose, thinking back 30 hours or so, said, "We're missing a couple of guys in our lineup ... a couple of free throws and there's no telling what could have happened."
At some point, especially in pro basketball, if the best player fails to come through with big games on the line, with seasons on the line, disappointment sets in even with a truly beloved player. But we're not near that point yet. We're at the point with the Bulls where we want to see them take their hearts out of their chests and throw them on the court, which is what Rose does. And if it doesn't work, we want to see the best of 'em stand there and say, "I did my best and today it wasn't good enough." Rose, unlike others who may be bigger or badder, seems to understand that. And it's part of what drives him.
When I asked if he found solace in any words or advice Sunday, Rose said, "My brothers, [agent] B.J. [Armstrong] and a couple of people I'm really close to said some things that probably helped ... I feel God does everything for a reason ... I don't know what this reason is ... maybe to put me in the gym and practice shooting free throws so that when that opportunity comes up again I'm ready for it."
And with that, the Bulls were back in the grind of this strange, taxing compressed season, two games into a nine-game road trip. It wouldn't surprise me to see Deng return, perhaps as early as Thursday in New York against the Knicks. It wouldn't surprise me to see the team shut down Hamilton for a while, the better to have him strong for the stretch run. And it shouldn't surprise anybody to hear more speculation, though not from the Bulls, about Dwight Howard coming to Chicago in a trade.
Howard triggered all this when he told the Chicago Tribune he wouldn't mind coming to Chicago to play with D-Rose. Hey, trade talk has been stoked with a whole lot less than that. Look, Orlando has flat-lined; the Magic are to this season what the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony were last season, which is to say miserable and destined to remain that way until the superstar-in-question is traded. It needs to happen sooner rather than later. Ask George Karl.
The Nets, a team Howard has said he would like to go to, have a still-recovering Brook Lopez and scraps, which amounts to not much. The Lakers, who need Howard for the post-Kobe era as much as anything else, don't want to part with both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Knicks, suddenly desperate, have reportedly considered sending Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire to Orlando, which would have been really attractive three years ago before word got out that the latter's knees are going, going ...
The teams that actually have assets to trade faced off in Washington on Monday. The Wizards have a young, undisciplined but still promising 24-year-old, 7-foot powerhouse in JaVale McGee, shooter Nick Young, Rashard Lewis' massive expiring contract and a sure-fire lottery pick come June. The Bulls, meanwhile, have bigs galore (Joakim Noah, Asik, Boozer, Taj Gibson) and a first-round draft pick belonging to lottery lifer Charlotte that will be unprotected in 2016.
The theory is that Rose and Howard (20.2 points, 15.5 rebounds), together, could rule the Eastern Conference for the next half-dozen years, just kick dirt on Miami or anybody else. The Bulls could do this by putting together a more attractive offer than the Knicks or Nets, or even the Lakers unless they deal Gasol and Bynum. The Bulls would have to give up Noah, Deng, maybe Asik or Gibson but not both, and that pick via the Bobcats.
Personally, I'd pass, and for about a half-dozen reasons. Mostly, I'd say "no" because the Bulls, as we were reminded on Sunday, can beat Miami now, this season, as is. Change the team dramatically now and you throw away any chance to win a title this season. Also, I'm not in that camp that thinks Rose playing with Howard is an automatic championship tag-team. That's a lot of presumption. You're asking Rose to completely change the way he plays, to become Chris Paul, which he isn't. And with that much salary cap space tied up in two super-max players and a high draft pick traded away in the deal, how exactly do you immediately replace somebody as valuable, especially on the defensive end, as Deng? Answer is, you don't.
Not only that, but what happens to the temperament, the hard edge of the team, which at its core is the personalities of Rose/Noah/Thibodeau? (It's easier to say "no" when Noah is starting to get back to his old self, averaging 10 points and 11 rebounds over the last 10 games, 13.2 points and 12.6 rebounds over his last five, while shooting 64 percent and averaging 4.4 assists per game.)
What we should see by now is that these fantasy couplings, like the Stoudemire-Anthony tag-team in New York, often sound a lot sexier in anticipation of the deals than they turn out to be on the court. No way I'd dismantle what John Paxson and Gar Forman have so carefully and wisely constructed. The Bulls, if relatively healthy, seem nose-to-nose equal to Miami and Oklahoma City, deeper and better defensively (though not as good offensively) than both.
As one longtime Eastern Conference guard told me this week, the Bulls have extraordinary chemistry, no knuckleheads, no excuse-making slackers ... they have players who know their roles in support of Rose, players who respond well to the particularly demanding Thibodeau, which is rare in today's NBA. Breaking all that up for Howard sounds can't-miss, but it's also very risky. Count me out. And it's hard to see a franchise like the Bulls, which has never made a blockbuster deal like this, doing it now with a team that could have the best record in basketball for the second straight season.
After Sunday afternoon -- and this is putting a lot on one game -- you have to ask yourself if the Bulls' roster as currently constructed can beat Miami in a seven-game series. Based on what we've seen so far, the Bulls have every reason to think they can.
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Boozer, talking about his team after the Wizards game, said, "We're driven. We have a goal in mind. To come up short in Miami was disappointing, but if we're a championship-caliber team, you dust off [Sunday's] game. I'm glad we had the energy, the juice to do that. We're resilient, which has to serve this team well.
"Miami was up 8-10 points in that game and we'd fight back. They'd go back up 8-10 and we'd fight back again. Luol, who should be an All-Star this season, was out. C.J., who has been great behind Derrick and sometimes with him, was out. Hey, anybody can get up for Miami. A dead man could get up for that, right? Guys could have fallen asleep [in D.C.] and didn't."
Meanwhile, Rose prepared to leave the visitors' dressing room. He had figured out something he liked about his team, something that fit him to a T. "Thibs," Rose said, "holds you accountable. It puts a lot of pressure on you as a player ... but he's the best coach I've had."
That it works, with the coach making those kinds of demands, is something that shouldn't be messed with. Leaving well enough alone is where the Bulls appear to be now, one-third of the way through this bizarre season.
Perhaps it's just time to stop tinkering, sit back and see if, as they believe, the Bulls have what it takes.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.