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.