Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose is a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions. As Chicago has continued its workman-like domination of the Eastern Conference for the second straight season under the guidance of head coach Tom Thibodeau, Rose's signature game face has become something of an Internet meme just a step below finger gunz. Here's the joke: no matter if he's thriving or struggling, playing or sitting, Rose's face remains remarkably steadfast. It can be interpreted as anywhere from stern to aloof, but it's extraordinarily unyielding.
That's why when Rose hit another exceptional floater/layup hybrid with :20 seconds left in the fourth quarter to secure the Bulls' 96-91 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night and ran back to the huddle after a Philly timeout, a slight crack of a smile said all you needed to know. This was joy meeting relief, spelled out across the MVP's face as plainly as it can be.
The Bulls host the Indiana Pacers tonight in a game that will surely be built up through the media as "Derrick Rose's Revenge". The Pacers handed Chicago its first home loss of the season on January 25, which prompted a gem of a quote from our typically demure MVP:
"I'll never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game," Rose told reporters. "I can't wait to play them again."
The Pacers are the team that whacked Rose upside the head every chance they got in the first round of last year's playoffs, a budding geographical and divisional rival that is developing as a nice foil to Thibodeau's Bulls. But don't think Rose and his teammates are unfamiliar with the problems Philadelphia has caused them. Coming into Sunday's matchup, the 76ers had defeated the Bulls in three straight games by an average of more than 11 points per contest. The storylines don't come oozing out of a showdown with Philly like they do with the Pacers, but that doesn't mean Doug Collins' team is any less of a nuisance.
On the contrary: I've been telling friends and family for weeks that the Sixers scare me more than any East team this side of the Heat, and Sunday's game -- even if it ended with a W for Chicago -- only reinforced it. Derrick Rose may be something of an automated, basketball playing cyborg, but the machine can show the capacity for happiness when it's really earned. The win coupled with Rose's stellar effort deserved a smile, even if the victory likely shouldn't have been so difficult.
While Rose finally allowed himself to enjoy his own otherworldly talents, some following the team were less impressed by the fourth quarter against the Sixers. This sentiment appears to be a common one:
Can't remember ever being this angry after a Bulls win. This is a poor man's Miami.We're still completely a 1 man team in the final 5 min.— CBE Fred (@cbefred) March 5, 2012
Indeed, these Sixers are no joke. The Bulls are so good because they are young and big and athletic and well-coached and are more-than-willing defenders. Each of those things can also be said about Philadelphia. They're the only team in the NBA giving up less points per game than Chicago; their roster is similarly packed with young legs, plus size, and ambitious athletes. The only difference is Rose.
It's been said time and again, but only because it's so true: the NBA is a star's league. Chicago has a natural alpha-dog, Philly doesn't. On Sunday, Rose scored 35 points and it was enough to give the Bulls a win. If Chicago and Philly meet in the second round of the playoffs, Rose is the reason the Bulls will be the heavy favorites. It speaks to how fortunate the Bulls are to have Rose, but it also makes the 76ers' aptitude even more impressive. Philly didn't cash-in a 1.7 percent chance at glory, but they swarm and fight in a way that likely warms Thibodeau's cold, dark heart. The Sixers "get it", which is in part the reason I would prefer a postseason schedule that doesn't include dates in Philadelphia.
Even with Rose equaling his season-high scoring effort, the win sure wasn't easy. Philadelphia clamped down Chicago in a way the Bulls have no choice but to get used to: trapping Rose further and further away from the hoop, daring anyone else on the Bulls to make the shots necessary to win the game. Collins also stole a page out of the Heat's book by putting Andre Iguodala on Rose, much in the same way Miami cuts the crap and sticks LeBron James on Chicago's reigning MVP when the game really gets tight. Iggy may be the closest thing in the league to a LeBron-like perimeter defender because of his size and athleticism, and, once again, Chicago struggled to get points with the defense zeroed-in on Rose. Fortunately, Rose hit enough theatrical shots and Chicago made enough late-game free throws to seal the win, but, again: not easy. Sunday night had a playoff-feel, even if it's nothing compared to the shadow cast by Miami.
How is Chicago to overcome all of this extra attention to their primary scorer come playoff time, when the focus is extra concentrated and the fouls carry added oomph? Here's an idea I liked:
If they're just going to trap Rose high, have someone else bring the ball up and let Rose run thru some screens for the ball. Simple.— RPK (@RPK_) March 5, 2012
The more obvious counter is through the position Chicago worked to upgrade this offseason: shooting guard, specifically with Richard Hamilton. Thibodeau has been easing Hamilton back into the lineup since returning from a groin injury, but Sunday offered an opportunity to gauge Hamilton's real value in the final five minutes of a close game against a quality opponent. Instead, Rip continued to sit with C.J. Watson being used in his stead, and the Bulls once again had trouble scoring in crunch-time.
Hamilton has proven himself to be unreliable, at least through this point in the season. An upgrade at the two is how the Bulls were supposed to close the gap with Miami, but at the moment, expecting grand things out of Rip is akin to believing in something that does not exist. We hope not, but there very well may come a time when Chicago sobers up and realizes what Hamilton is: an old dude with an injury-prone body who owns a lot of war medals. This isn't so much a conquering hero as it is a once-proud veteran who can tell a bunch of good stories. 2004 was a hell of year, but it was also a long, long time ago.
Here's something scary: even with all of Rose's heroics, the Bulls beat Philly on Sunday mostly because they made more three-pointers. Chicago went 7-for-16 from downtown; the Sixers went 1-of-11. That's the difference, yet one that can't be counted on nightly.
For all of the reserve the win over Philadelphia might carry, it's still a great win. Wednesday's victory in San Antonio was, too. The NBA's best continue to come at the Bulls, and the Bulls keep turning them away. The hope is that all these regular season victories don't obscure deeper flaws. As always, only playoff time will tell whole truths. Until then, Chicago will gladly keep stockpiling victories, sometimes even with a smile on their face.
* * * * *
1. Bro love.
I see that Kobe is wearing the mask. Welcome to my world bro.— Rip Hamilton (@ripcityhamilton) March 4, 2012
Which reminds me, I really wish I would have thought of this Renaissance Fan tweet first: "Kobe wanted to come out in a bloody Jason mask but that's apparently against league policy."
2. Sweet trade. (via Blog-a-Bull)
3. D. Rose Don't Dance has gone viral.
Not all the Bulls are so facially static.
Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.