That friends, was a party.
Derrick Rose scored 30 points in yet another star performance at home, Luol Deng added 23 while showing some grown-man toughness, and Carlos Boozer added 14 points and 12 rebounds asThe Bulls crushed the Boston Celtics, 97-81.
"We got our ass kicked tonight. I haven't recalled that in a while," said Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett after the game.
In the team's most anticipated matchup in more than a month, Chicago avoided the lapses that had surfaced over the last two weeks, playing a near-complete 48 minutes. It's quite possible the Bulls recent mini-struggles were due more to regular season boredom than anything else.
Derrick Rose seems to play his best in the biggest games, which is, well, ideal for the Bulls. First it was the 42 he dropped on the Spurs at home in March, then the gritty one-point win in Miami that included Rose's sick 1-on-2 against Lebron and Wade, and tonight's sharp 30-8-5 including 10-10 from the free throw line. It seems like ages ago that Rose wasn't getting to the line enough, to say nothing of his unreal improvement in free throw shooting since the new year.
On the night when Scottie Pippen had a bronze bust unveiled in his honor, Deng played the role of number 33 to a T as a second option and the team's best defender. He also showed a lot of toughness on the court, taking an accidental kick to the head from Taj Gibson late in the game:
If Deng ever did carry the soft label, he has certainly outgrown it this year. It's clear that Thibs identified him early on as one of the Bulls' best players and a leader, and the coach's belief has given Deng a lot of confidence.
Whether perception or reality, it's hard to deny that Tom Thibodeau is seen as one of the best current basketball minds in the league. Just think of the crib notes that the likely NBA coach of the year gave his team before they took the floor against his former team. And then his correctly-motivated players, to their credit, went out and executed that game plan. The results were fierce. The Bulls out-rebounded the Celtics 44-35. Kevin Garnett went 3-9 from the field; Ray Allen, 3-11; Rajon Rondo, 3-10, and Glen Davis 1-8. Paul Pierce and Delonte West shot a decent percentage but combined for seven turnovers.
When I watch the Bulls, my comfort level is always based on the quarter-to-quarter score. Even though the score was close at times tonight, I never really felt concerned because when a Bulls' opponent is on pace for somewhere around 80-85 points, it is curtains. The Bulls' defense was humming, Boston missed Kendrick Perkins (or at least Shaq), and saying Jeff Green and the corpse of Jermaine O'Neal weren't up to the task is being kind. Honestly, do you even remember when Jermaine O'Neal was good? This is the same guy who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 2007. He's been so bad (and perpetually injured) the last few years it's easy to forget what a stud he once was.
One cannot separate the good news from the fact that this game was only a practice exam, that some might argue it didn't matter entirely to either team. But ask Thibodeau, who re-inserted his starters with a 16-point lead and three minutes left if the game was important. Not only does Chicago gain whatever intangible psychological edge may come with the win, but the Bulls magic number to clinch the east now drops to one, virtually clinching the Eastern Conference crown. Now Thibodeau can rest some of his players (COUGHDengCOUGH) and begin preparing his team physically for the playoffs. The Bulls play the second of a back-to-back against the honorary NBDL Cleveland Cavaliers tomorrow. Don't get me wrong, I love Thibs. But if he plays Deng 40 minutes I might have to shank him.
With four games remaining it seems likely the Bulls will reach the 60 win plateau, an absurd suggestion at the beginning of the season. Not only do they play the Cavaliers tomorrow night with a chance to clinch the east, but also to tie the all-time NBA mark for division record at 15-1.
Yes, it's just one win, and a medium stakes regular season one at that. But the Bulls' NBA ascendance shows no signs of slowing down with the playoff proving grounds right around the corner.