- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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They were evaluating entirely different things, the Bulls and Derrick Rose. The reigning MVP was obsessed with the dozen shots he missed, the career-low two points and one basket. Rose kept saying he was "grateful" his teammates had his back because he'd given them next-to-nothing in another exhilarating victory over Miami. "If I'd seen this coming," he said, "I wouldn't have played."
Rose's coach and teammates, on the other hand, knew there are times in a franchise player's career when just being there is contribution enough. There are games when he's too hurt, too sick, too distressed for whatever reason to produce in the manner his team is accustomed but is nonetheless worth his weight in gold simply because he plays.
Rose's assessment of his performance Thursday night: "I played a terrible game ... " And there's no arguing that. You could probably make the case, even though Rose says he has played worse in his life, that this was the lousiest game he's played in high school, in college or in the NBA.
And it was entirely necessary. No matter how many times the Bulls win without Rose in the regular season, they're not going to win a championship without him; anybody who argues to the contrary is too stupid to listen to. So Thursday night was essential for Rose and for the Bulls to just have him on the court. Missed shots or not. He wasn't going to create something out of nothing to save the offense as will have to be the case in late May or June if the Bulls get that far. The ambition is more basic than that right now. They've got seven measly games remaining in the regular season ... seven games before the playoffs begin for Rose to get the rust off, get himself back to midseason form and figure out how to play seamlessly with Rip Hamilton, who has missed even more games.
So Rose, no matter how out of sync, had to play Thursday night against Miami. Had to. As Magic Johnson observed earlier in the week, "Sometimes, as the best player, you have to go out there even though you're not really close to 100 percent, even though you're not going to shoot well, even though you have no chance of being the best player on your team that night. ... It's the superstar's job to be out there for everybody on that team to know that's an important game and this is an important time."
Hamilton, who has dealt with any number of injuries during his long career, told Rose before the game, "Look, your mind is going to tell you to do some things and your body just isn't ready to go along yet. Don't worry about it."
Of course, Rose is worried about it, at 23 years old, an assortment of injuries having made a mess of his season. It's the first time in his career he can't blow past people, the first time in his career, in the regular season anyway, when he can't dictate the terms of the game. The goal now, even bigger than finishing with the No. 1 seed in the East, is getting Rose healthy and keeping him there. "This kid," Carlos Boozer said, "is a baller. He's the natural. We have crazy confidence in him. ... We just want him to stay healthy."
Nobody appears delusional about Rose's health, not his teammates, certainly not him. The best news of the night for the Bulls, besides beating Miami, was that Rose played 25 minutes and felt pretty good after the game. No setbacks. "I feel pretty decent, actually," Rose said, clearly surprised. "I was trying to get Lu and Kyle the ball because they were going so well."
When asked if he was OK with his coach, Tom Thibodeau, sitting him at the end of regulation and in overtime, Rose said, "Oh yeah, I'm fine, man. Anything to win. He felt that lineup would win the game ... and it did win the game."
Thibodeau said it didn't surprise him at all, once the team was behind closed doors after the final seconds of the victory, to see Rose go from locker to locker doling out playful punches to each and every teammate.
Thursday night, more than ever, the Bulls had to realize how beatable Miami is. On a night when Rose had his worst game as a pro, when the offense was better with him on the bench than in the game, when Joakim Noah had no game to speak of, when the Bulls shot a higher percentage from the 3-point arc than they did from the foul line for most of the game, Miami still couldn't beat them.
Miami's transition defense, once as good as any team's in the league, is less than average lately.
Somehow, with fewer than 10 games to play, Miami isn't settled on a rotation and has no backup point guard.
The Heat bench is essentially nonexistent; the Miami reserves produced seven points on 3-for-12 shooting against the Bulls ... which means LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have to do way too much, which other teams are getting hip to.
Mostly, Miami has gone about its business with a "What, me worry?" attitude, even though the team is 5-5 in its last 10 games. But the Heat made it perfectly clear coming to Chicago that they were one win away from everything being back on course, and that they were going to do everything within their power to win this game, no matter what Rose's status was.
So even as Bulls players said this win, in the bigger picture, proved nothing, fact is still that Miami has struggled lately against good teams and failed to beat the Bulls in consecutive games with no production from Rose.
But it would be silly to suggest there was nothing significant about the Bulls beating Miami, from the prodigious production of the bench to Thibodeau's willingness to keep the struggling Rose on the bench in the game's critical moments. It may be reason for controversy in Los Angeles if Mike Brown benches Kobe Bryant, but Rose made sure to publicly credit his coach for doing the right thing.
Still, it seemed prudent for the Bulls to downplay any great significance to the win, so Boozer might as well have the final word. "We're proud of ourselves for winning tonight," he said, "but we didn't win a championship."
And with that, the Bulls and Heat went to their respective corners, likely to be called to the center of the ring for more of the same come late May. We can hope.
13hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann