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On their way to a seemingly easy home win the Bulls blew a 22-point third quarter lead against the Phoenix Suns, but Derrick Rose once again proved that he is the best closer in the NBA this year, willing his team to a 97-94 victory.
After scoring only sixteen points in one of the sloppiest NBA fourth quarters the Bulls have played in quite a while, Rose shook off a poor shooting night (19 points, 5-16 FG) and canned a huge jumpshot that put Chicago up four with thirty seconds left.
Two possessions later, Steve Nash inexplicably drove the lane with the Suns down by three and only ten seconds remaining. The shot fell astray, but even if it had gone in the game would have been over. A strange ending to a game that was flat ugly for the final twelve minutes.
The fact that Rose, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer combined to shoot 18-46 from the floor and the Bulls still won is amazing in and of itself, but the Bulls were out-rebounded 43-41 and outscored in the paint 50-40 against one of the weakest inside teams in the league. The Bulls won because they had twice as many free throw attempts as Phoenix (24-12) and because the aforementioned Rose gets a late bucket seemingly every time his team needs it.
Boozer and Joakim Noah played together for the first time in over a week, with positive returns. While he shot poorly, Boozer had seven assists, with four of them going to Noah for scores. Boozer also finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. Noah, still favoring his right ankle, tallied 12 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals. Deng finished with a quiet 18 points.
Ronnie Brewer continued his sharp play of late with ten points, six rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes. If he keeps this up he might take Keith Bogans' spot in the starting lineup (ha!). Taj Gibson was also a sparkplug for the Bulls, notching 10 points and nine rebounds as the Chicago second unit once again extended an early lead.
Nash had 16 assists and six points to key the late comeback for the Suns. Vince Carter, if this is even possible, was simultaneously responsible for Phoenix's comeback and for the loss. Carter scored 13 points on 5-14 shooting in the fourth quarter, including air-balling a pair of fadeaway jumpers in the game's final crucial possessions. Deng struggled to defend Carter's drives to the basket, making it all the more mystifying why Carter kept settling for jumper after jumper.
As the Bulls ultimately won and the Suns have a habit of making late-game runs to get back into games, it's best to chalk the late performance up as a fluke. When things got tight Chicago's defense showed up, as did Rose, and that has been the formula for 57 wins and counting. No doubt Tom Thibodeau will have a field day dissecting his team's late breakdowns, but with the one seed in the East more or less in hand, the focus now becomes more about getting everyone healthy and on the same page before the playoffs begin.
The Bulls' biggest remaining test before the playoffs takes place Thursday night, when the Boston Celtics come to town for a nationally-televised game that could be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Without subscribing to it, allow me to present a theory that's floating out there on the Interwebs these days: Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, two of the biggest names on the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, can't co-exist on the floor together.
Statistics to support it are sparse, and the sample size of games even more so. But watching Boozer go off these last few games while Noah wore a blazer on the bench didn't help to quell this growing meme.
Then, Monday morning, the news came out that, while Noah is probably a go against the Phoenix Suns, Boozer has come down with the flu and will be a gametime decision. Conspiracy theories aside, with only six games left before the playoffs begin, the Bulls need as much time with both players on the floor as possible to iron out whatever kinks there may be in their two-man game.
In the meantime, Derrick Rose is in arguably his finest stretch of the season, finishing strong as every media darling, future NBA MVP should. Over the past five games, Rose is averaging 29.4 points, 9.8 assists and 89% from the free throw line. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, apparently he felt slighted when the Toronto Raptors defeated the Bulls in late February, which led to 36 points and 10 assists in a virtuoso performance this past Saturday.
"I just remember them celebrating after they won back in Toronto," Rose said. "When you see people celebrating when they normally don't do that if you watch other games after they win, it kind of gets to you -- especially being the person that I am," he said. "I just try to feed off of anything, where by nature I'm just a quiet guy trying to get along with a lot of people."
The lesson: if you are playing Derrick Rose, you'd best be polite. Otherwise this might happen to you:
Last time they played the Suns, the Bulls won one of their most thrilling games of the season in a double-overtime 123-115 victory that helped launch the team on it's current dream ride.
The Suns play the type of Euro drive-and-kick style that the Bulls struggle with defensively. (See: Raptors, Toronto.) But Phoenix has just been eliminated from the playoffs, and team leader Steve Nash is questionable to play after missing the last two games with flu-like symptoms. When playing for pride and Vince Carter are uttered in the same sentence, wins seldom follow.
Suns To Watch For
As mentioned, the Suns and Nash are synonymous and, if he doesn't play, the Suns are in trouble. Aaron Brooks would be his replacement, but he's much more of a scorer than a passer and doesn't facilitate the offense as Nash does. The Suns love the three-pointer, and forwards Jared Dudley and Channing Frye will camp out there and shoot all night. Marcin Gortatis Phoenix's lone quality post presence, and even he has never seen regular minutes on an NBA team until two months ago. Vince Carter has always had the Bulls number to a certain extent, but he rarely plays his hardest -- especially on a team with nothing to play for.
Bulls To Watch For
Joakim Noah. If he does play, and it seems likely he will, the Bulls need him to be an offensive threat -- particularly if Boozer can't go. Noah has more or less abandoned the elbow jumper he consistently hit before his thumb injury early in the year. It would be great for the team if he could find the range on his shot again.
Omer Asik will also have a chance to redeem some mediocre play of late, as the Suns have absolutely no one on their bench who can match up with him. The Bulls need Asik to start hitting a few more free throws (40% in March) so he's not an offensive liability when out on the floor. This probably doesn't need to be mentioned but, goodness gracious, DRose should have a field day with the league's 27th-ranked defensive team.
Winners of 15 of 17 games, Chicago looks to increase its 2 1/2 game lead in the East against the Phoenix Suns, losers of five of their last six games. Tip-off at the United Center is at 7:00 CDT on WCIU.
Follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks