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Monday, April 18, 2011
Updated: April 19, 8:31 AM ET
Bulls follow familiar formula

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- You figure at some point he's going to miss those spinning drives down the lane, or that the defense is going to successfully smother him, or he'll clang a couple of free throws late in the fourth quarter or simply make the wrong play. Derrick Rose, after all, is still just 22 years old and completely undecorated in playoff basketball.

You look at the Chicago Bulls struggling with the Indiana Pacers and you know they could use another scorer, that they have nobody on the roster for whom an open shot is automatic. You keep thinking that the Bulls rely so much on one player to score, to pass, to rally and to lead that it's all going to fall apart at some point in these playoffs, which is why some folks keep picking Miami or Boston in the East.
Derrick Rose SC
Derrick Rose is averaging 37.5 points a game against the Pacers in the playoffs and has closed them out in both games.

And then you see him do it again and again and again, even into the NBA playoffs, and you start to wonder if anything in basketball is beyond the kid.

Kurt Thomas, 38, is an old man by basketball standards. He's seen it all. Twice. He's played with Patrick Ewing, with Alonzo Mourning when Zo was young and seemingly invincible, with Steve Nash when he was the MVP, with Tim Duncan when he was still playing at a championship level. Thomas has played with Hall of Famers and is much more likely to shrug than to overstate his point.

Asked after Game 2 to assess what Rose has done against the Pacers, what he's done all season, Thomas said: "I've never played with a guy this young, this talented, this poised. You have to take your hat off to his upbringing, his demeanor, his respect for people, whether they have anything to do with basketball or not … And then you consider how difficult it is to play here at home where he was born and raised. He's so good; he's so humble. I'm glad I got to be here and work with him every day and get to know him."

You can talk about Carlos Boozer's recovery after a stinky Game 1 to total 17 points and 16 rebounds. You can point to Kyle Korver's 3-pointer that pushed the Bulls' lead from two points to five with a minute to play and provide the cushion necessary to win.

But once again it was Rose who carried the Bulls to playoff victory the way Michael Jordan used to: 36 points two nights after he scored 39, 12 of 13 free throws two nights after making 19 of 21, eight rebounds, six assists.

Don't waste time with the argument that it's only the Pacers, the seven-games-under-.500 Pacers, because the Pacers have a better roster by miles than fourth-seeded Orlando and play with a passion the Atlanta Hawks couldn't possibly understand. Whichever of those two the Bulls get in the second round won't come close to testing the Bulls the way the Pacers will over this series.

No, the Bulls aren't going to win many runaway games in the playoffs no matter who the opponent is, because they don't have the firepower to do so. Boozer is the only Bulls player who made more than three baskets in the Game 2 victory. The Bulls shot 39 percent, prompting coach Tom Thibodeau to say: "We certainly missed enough shots [51] to get offensive rebounds [20 to Indiana's nine]. … Right now, that is one of the better parts of our offense."

This is the Bulls' formula: Kill the opponent on the boards (57-33) and let Rose win the ballgame. And despite whatever shortcomings the Bulls have -- hell, despite Rose turning the ball over six times in Game 2 -- Rose can win the game.

Almost everybody throws some kind of trap at Rose, hoping to make him give up the ball 20 feet from the basket, but Indiana trapped him high and trapped him hard, with long athletic players who don't mind whacking him, and it hardly mattered.

Thomas I've never played with a guy this young, this talented, this poised. You have to take your hat off to his upbringing, his demeanor, his respect for people, whether they have anything to do with basketball or not.

-- Kurt Thomas on Derrick Rose

Thibodeau was thinking of those traps when he said: "They put a lot of pressure on him. He made the right plays. He made the right decisions."

And because Rose did, the Bulls narrowly won again to take a 2-0 lead in the series, the way they'll probably win whatever games they win in these playoffs. Thibodeau was asked whether he is perhaps a little freaked out about apparently needing Rose to average 36 points to beat the No. 8 seed in the first round of the playoffs, and Thibs -- much to his credit -- answered not just candidly but honestly. "The game dictates that," he said. "He's our primary scorer. We need him to score."

OK, I'm about wander into territory I swore for the past 13 years I wouldn't wander into, because whenever a sportswriter has dared to compare a guy -- even Kobe Bryant -- to Jordan, my head explodes, because it's completely irresponsible … but here goes anyway.

This is so much like early Jordan it's scary. You couldn't have followed the '90s Bulls and not remember the nearly identical questions about the Bulls being too dependent on Jordan's scoring, about whether the team was really a contender if he had to average 40 in the first round against Cleveland, about whether any of his teammates were going to take the pressure off of him in the fourth quarter. We wondered and wondered until it was clear that Jordan was virtually infallible on the basketball court, particularly in pressure situations.

In that way and to this point, only, Rose reminds me absolutely of Jordan.

Yes, Rose has a long, long, long way to go before he compares favorably with the 1990 Jordan, who was by then the best player in the league and on the cusp of winning a championship. Rose is only halfway to winning his first playoff series, and trust me, the games in Indianapolis are going to be a war, because the Pacers are certain they can still win this series.

The truly great players are at their best wearing the road jerseys, as if the defiance drives them more than the cheers. Rose is just now coming to that point of the program. But it's impossible not to consider what Thomas said after Game 2, about Rose's demeanor, his diligence, his humility. When congratulations were offered Monday night, Rose wanted none of it.

I'm reminded of the night a few weeks ago when he led the Bulls to victory in Miami, then called his advisor, former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, and began the conversation by asking, "What did I do wrong tonight?"

On Monday night, Rose said: "I'm only concerned about my turnovers. I had six of them, and they definitely changed the game."

With that, Rose was off into the cold night, surely to obsess over the turnovers and the one missed free throw and some difficult shot he believes he should have made. Regardless of the opponent, the Bulls are going to play close games, it seems, and somebody is going to have to prove they can stop Rose from being the difference.

Let's see if the Pacers, as contentious and as determined as they may be, are up to that.

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. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.