"Memphis played harder than us, and we can't have that. We won because of talent, but we can't get outworked like that."
After two straight blowouts over the Kings and Hawks, Chicago sauntered into the United Center Friday night looking to play a game of basketball, while the Grizzlies were ready to fight for their playoff lives. Memphis, especially Chicago native and Crane High School graduate Tony Allen, pushed the Bulls around for three quarters and dictated the pace of the game. But with the sold-out United Center crowd behind them, Derrick Rose and the now-indispensable Luol Deng lifted their team up when they were needed most.
Deng, the Bulls undisputed leader (yes, even over the electrifying Derrick Rose), is an extension of coach Tom Thibodeau on the court and in the locker room. Thibodeau's message is predicated on getting better every day, and Deng and the rest of the Bulls were disappointed by the fact that they didn't improve tonight. And yet, with its two leaders on the floor, Chicago has a chance to win even on off nights, and the Grizzlies are the latest team in the NBA to experience it.
Deng buoyed the Bulls early, going 3-4 from distance and finishing with 23 points and six rebounds. Rose, whose shot apparently did not make the flight home from Atlanta (6-22 FG, 0-5 3PT), did what he seems to do every night: he closed out the game. He is the Mariano Rivera of basketball.
With less than a minute to go, Rose (23 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) rocked the ball back and forth at the top of the key, shook elite defender Tony Allen, drove left and finished with a lefty lay-up while being fouled by Marc Gasol. Dagger. Ballgame. That's what Derrick Rose does, and it is that kind of play that gives the Bulls a chance to win on nights when they don't bring their "A" game.
The Bulls frontline of Carlos Boozer (12 points, 9 rebounds) and Joakim Noah (5 points, 4 rebounds) struggled in the first half against Memphis' stout front line of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, before finally matching energy in the fourth quarter and getting the Bulls the points in the paint they desperately needed. After the game, Thibodeau said the team needs to work harder to get Boozer the ball where he is most comfortable, as he works his way back from the sprained ankle that cost him five games. That task ultimately falls to Rose as the team's floor leader and distributor. For all of Rose's transcendent skills, his ability to set his teammates up where they want the ball is still a work in progress.
The Bulls' bench unit really kept the team in the game, especially early, as Taj Gibson (6 points, 7 rebounds) and Ronnie Brewer (7 points, 4 rebounds) brought energy to the floor when Chicago seemed to have none.
For Memphis, Marc Gasol had a solid all-around game with 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Tony Allen began with a strong game but seemed to lose his cool in the second half, talking trash after every play and eventually getting a technical foul for woofing at the Bulls' bench. Rest assured that Boozer, Scalabrine and the rest of the Bulls had a good laugh when referee Joey Crawford made the call.
With the Boston Celtics' stunning home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, the Bulls' hard-fought win gives them a two-game edge in the race for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference. No rest for the weary, however, as the Bulls travel north to play the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night.