Luol Deng got mad, Derrick Rose got busy, and Joakim Noah finished it off with a block party. The Bulls' three homegrown stars showed up when it mattered most Saturday, leading their team on a 16-1 game-ending run to cap off an amazing comeback against the Indiana Pacers at the United Center.
For 43 minutes, the Bulls were largely outplayed by the Pacers, who brought the kind of energy and shot-making that helped them beat some of the league's elite during the regular season, including one of Chicago's two losses in its last 24 games. The Bulls' defense started off slowly and when it did rotate properly, the Pacers were canning shots, to the tune of 50% shooting in the first half. Give Indiana credit, as they were all kinds of perky and extended their lead every time the Bulls pulled within a couple of baskets. Danny Granger played well in the third quarter, but it was Tyler Hansbrough who outplayed Carlos Boozer and had Indiana within minutes of a stunning road upset.
Yet as someone who has watched nearly every game this season, I can tell you I didn't actually get worried until Boozer's idiot foul on a Hansbrough breakaway with 3:38 left that stretched the Pacers lead to 10. Up to that point, I knew that Derrick Rose was waiting in the bullpen (ooh, new Bulls' wordplay!) for his patented MVP-closer stint, which frankly defies description at this point. But as the Bulls kept shooting themselves in the foot and the Pacers hitting key baskets, I'll admit I let doubt creep in.
But that is when one of the cooler moment of the season took place, when with five minutes left Deng inexplicably took exception to the 374,384th foul on Rose, shoved Hansbrough in the chest and promptly earned himself a technical foul. It was without question the most demonstrative play of Luol Deng's seven-year career, and while it was not a good time to give up a free point to Indiana, frankly the Bulls needed that kick in the pants. Deng, who has had his toughness questioned multiple times over his career, took it upon himself to lead his team and to protect Rose, whom the Pacers clobbered for 48 minutes. Watching a furious Deng inciting the crowd as he got back on defense was almost as enjoyable as Rose's game-ending unleashing.
Although Boozer tried to ruin it with his fourth turnover and subsequent hack on the Hansbrough dunk, the momentum switched after the Deng episode. The defense finally cranked it up to a fever pitch and Derrick Rose morphed into closer mode, and that is when the Chicago Bulls are their absolute deadliest.
What happened next was the stuff of legend: a 16-1 run over the 3:29 of the game, with Rose assisting or scoring on 12 of the points. He finished with 39 points, including 19-21 from the free throw line as he got into the painted area seemingly at will. A patented Noah double-offensive-board-and-tip-in began the run, and a double rejection of Josh McRoberts emphatically ended it, with Noah getting so fired up after the play that I thought he might pop a blood vessel.
Underneath the euphoria of a win that probably shouldn't have been is the, I'm sorry to say, putrid performance of Boozer. Already with a reputation for coming up small in the postseason, Boozer's tired act of careening to the basket without a purpose while yelling and begging for fouls was the opposite of what the Bulls paid 15mm a year for. It seems increasingly clear that while Boozer remains an important part of the Bulls offense as its inside offensive threat, he cannot be counted on to make the big plays for this team, especially in the biggest moments. I would love to be proven wrong on this, preferably as soon as game two.
As it is, Rose's performance (while going 0-9 from behind the arc) adds yet another brilliant chapter to his growing legend. With Deng and a rejuvenated Noah behind him, who knows how far the Bulls can go?
Game 2 at the United Center tips off on Monday night at 8:30 CDT.
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