So transcendent has Derrick Rose been this season that it's become difficult to blame him for anything. Sure, his defense falters at times -- but never too long. He'll miss seven straight threes, but still scores 30 on the way to a Bulls win. Yeah, he threw the ball away, but did you see how he got back for that block?! Even when he's being criticized the 2011 MVP has gotten a pass, most of all because the Bulls kept winning.
Not anymore. Not with the Bulls trailing a series this postseason for only the second time -- the first being the Hawks' 1-0 lead in the semifinals -- and Rose not able to lift his team to victory the way he has done all year. The downside of being a (media-proclaimed) savior is that if you don't deliver, all eyes fall on you first.
The fact of the matter is, Rose is the main reason the Bulls are losing. Not because he's playing poorly, but because the team has won so many times this year simply because of his out and out brilliance. Without it, the Bulls don't really have a chance against the Heat, especially if the Bulls' defense continues to allow such a high field goal percentage. Rose's numbers are down across the board from the Atlanta series, averaging 23 points, 6.3 assists and 4 rebounds after putting up 29.8, 9.8 and 4.3 against the Hawks. That is good enough for many teams, but the Bulls depend on Rose to win games late while the rest of the team defends and finishes his occasional assist. The closer-Rose death squad that shut down any team is faced while the MVP sliced and diced on the other end is nowhere to be found in this series. Two straight games now the Bulls have pulled even late only to get blown away in the final minutes, and while the defense has allowed the Heat a number of open looks, some of them are simply talented creators hitting their shots over good defense. Meanwhile Rose has scored two points and made three assists in each of the last two fourth quarters. This is a player who in clutch situations -- last five minutes of a game when the score margin is less than five -- averages 35.8 pts, 7.3 assists and 7.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. That's how ridiculously good Rose has been this year, why the Bulls have won virtually every 50/50 battle they faced up until now, and the reason Miami owns a 2-1 series lead. Again, Rose is and will continue to be a stud, but if he cannot carry the Bulls the way he has the rest of this year, they are in trouble.
Speaking of being in trouble, Joakim Noah has certainly had better days than he did for Game 3, after struggling on the court (one point, six assists, five rebounds) and being a distraction off of it. There's no need to editorialize Noah's verbal blunder here except to say that he's by all accounts a quality human being and will likely never utter the word again, at least not in public. He made a mistake in the heat of the moment and owned it after the fact. Imagine being as fired up as you can possibly be, getting whistled for a second early foul AND THEN as you sit down some douche fan says something about your momma. Even Luol Deng said he wanted to punch the guy, and he's about the nicest fella around. I'm not excusing Noah's actions, I'm just sayin'.
As for his play, the Bulls just need more from him, as he has become the primary playmaker when Rose doesn't have the ball. This resulted in easy looks early in Game 3 until Miami began playing Noah as a passer, at which point the Bulls' offense came off the rails. With Rose bottled up on traps and extended screen-and-rolls and Noah not able to create his own offense, Chicago really struggled to get anything going on the offensive end. And I mean really. Omer Asik's status is still up in the air for Game 4 due to the leg injury he suffered late in Game 3, making Noah's presence and poise all the more crucial in Tuesday's game. After missing 30 games from thumb surgery and a handful more because of a sprained ankle, it's finally time for the Bulls to lean on Noah and for him to answer the call.
Meanwhile, Kyle Korver has been mostly unusable in this series because of his defensive deficiencies, made overwhelmingly obvious when he was run over by a freight train late in Game 3. (That link is hilarious and totally worth a click.) Korver isn't hitting shots, but moreover isn't getting open enough to take them either. As the Heat have shelved their 3-point specialist James Jones, so too will the Bulls if Korver can't provide an offensive spark soon after he enters the game.
To win Game 4, the Bulls will need to solve Rose's struggles against the athletic Heat double-team and get back to drive-and-kick ball movement, iron out the defensive breakdowns on the interior and teach Boozer how to finish a lay-up in traffic (tip 1: yelling is not a move). That is a tall order to be sure, but before you go putting the cart before the horse or saying the Bulls simply don't have enough pieces, remember how this team got this far in the first place.
The Bulls have bounced back from adversity multiple times this season, between injuries to both bigs for extended periods, rising expectations late in the year and big-time growing pains in these playoffs. And while they did lose in disappointing fashion in Game 3, it was the first road game of this series at a fired up American Airlines Arena. With just one win, the momentum shifts back to Chicago and the series begins anew.