Following an 85-77 home victory against the Hornets, Derrick Rose said with a chuckle what many around the NBA are now noticing:
"We're pretty good."
Nearly as talented at the art of humility as he is at basketball, even Rose had to admit that Chicago can no longer be looked at as an underdog. Facing a New Orleans squad playing without floor leader Chris Paul, the assignment for the Bulls was to avoid a letdown after Sunday's emotional win over the Miami Heat.
For three and a half quarters, the Bulls looked flat and there was little energy at the United Center to buoy them. Coach Tom Thibodeau called multiple timeouts to gather his troops and plead for more effort from his team.
Eventually, the Bulls got a boost from team leaders Joakim Noah (6 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks) and, not surprisingly, MVP candidate Rose (24 points, 9 assists). Noah's energy in particular gave Chicago the second chance opportunities they had to have on a night where nothing would go in the basket (38% FG, 4-20 from 3). Noah's energy, Rose's ability to close out games and the Bulls' ever-present defense were simply too much for the over-matched Hornets.
David West, playing with a sprained ankle, had a double double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, but went 4-13 from the floor. The Hornets missed Paul terribly, notching 77 points on only 10 assists.
One point of good news for Bulls fans: Rose finally ended an 0-22 slump from 3-point land, hitting two straight in the 3rd quarter. Overall, however, he struggled with his shot, going just 8-21 from the floor. His shot looks to have flattened out over the past two weeks, and while it his confidence doesn't seem to be in any danger, the Bulls have to hope he regains his mid-season form soon. Carlos Boozer looked better than he has of late, scoring 19 points to go with 9 rebounds, although once again he had his shot blocked multiple times. He seems to be moving slower and has very little lift when going to the basket, leading me to wonder if there might be a nagging injury of some sort. However nothing has been reported to that effect, and lucky for Chicago, the rise of Omer Asik and the return of Noah have allowed the Bulls to continue winning in spite of Boozer's recent struggles. It is imperative that the Bulls find a way to get him going again, and it's clear that Thibodeau realizes it as he called isolation plays for Boozer time and again.
Meanwhile, the Bulls head to Charlotte to face yet another depleted team on Wednesday. The Bobcats traded away team leader Gerald Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers and have lost five straight contests entering Wednesday's game. That said the Bobcats are 2-1 against the Bulls this year, and have been a team Chicago has struggled against this season.
Not every game can provide the flash and entertainment value of Sunday's Bulls-Heat barn-burner. New Orleans god-awful Mardis Gras uniforms foreshadowed an ugly game at the United Center Monday night. But as the cliché goes, a win is a win, and Chicago will need every one of these if they are indeed to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference.