With Derrick Rose suffering his worst game as a pro, clearly not remotely healthy, C.J. Watson stepped up and carried the torch. His 16 points and nine assists don't do justice to how well he played. Not only did Watson have an outstanding job initiating the offense for himself and his teammates, but he also played outstanding defense as well.
I love you C.J. Watson
I'd like to take a moment to sit back and say thank you to C.J. Watson, long term followers of this blog and podcast will note that I've been very high on Watson since we signed him. I think he's been a tremendous value contract for the Bulls and has played really terrifically in his role. His improvement this year has been outstanding.
He may not be a starting caliber PG on most teams [though he could fit in nicely on someone like L.A. that mostly needs ball handling, ball movement, and shooting], but he can be the Bulls Jason Terry. He can come in and give the team three point shooting, bring them offense, and he's capable of stepping up and having monster games even if he's not capable of consistently having them.
C.J. Watson did not let go of the rope. C.J. Watson tied the rope to the United Center and dragged it to victory lane with all of us sitting in it watching. C.J. played his ass off, his passing was on target all night, his defensive pressure incredible, and he pushed the ball on offense like Derrick Rose couldn't to create easy opportunities for others.
Hats off to you C.J., this game has a chance to break into my top five in person memories, the top 4 off the top of my head:
Contenders for 5 off the top of my head:
This game, Bulls win against Miami last year, Deng's 2 threes in OT to beat the cavs two years ago, Elton Brand game winner in his second season [buzzer beater I saw in person], games 1 and 2 against the Heat in 2006/7 when we swept them, the John Salmons/Paul Pierce duel, and the Washington preseason game in which Eddy Curry punched Brendan Haywood in the nuts.
#4 "The play/The block" 2004/5 season, Nocioni makes a flying block, Chandler dives out of bounds, throws it over his head blindly to Hinrich who tosses it to Noc, to Curry for the basket with two seconds left. Knicks could have held for the last shot, but Bulls get a miracle win.
#3 Game #3 in Indiana last year, Bulls down by one with Indy having a two for one left. Bulls make two stops, and Rose drives right in for the layup, Bulls win by 1 [Also my first ever Bulls game on the road]
#2 "Nocioni" playoff game (2004/5 season game 1 against the Wizards, still the loudest I've ever heard the UC)
#1 Ben Gordon grab the crotch, double OT win against Boston in game 4 [shame I could have gone to game 6 but opted not to]
Taj Gibson is not afraid
I sometimes get the feeling that the Bulls are a bit intimidated by the Heat. One man who is not intimidated is Taj Gibson. There was no hesitation, no second thought, no pulling up on his jumper or lack of confidence. Taj didn't always make the play, but no one always makes the play. Taj always made the attempt in the flow of what he should do.
He had the great post up of LeBron down low where he spun around him for the basket. He had the monster plays in overtime which put enough pressure on Miami that they dropped the rope. His defense was suffocating all night long. One of my favorite moments of the night was when Shane Battier inexplicably decided to attempt to take Taj Gibson down in the low post. Why Battier would ever try to post up a guy who's taller, longer, more athletic, and an elite defender is beyond me. It did not end well for Shane.
Taj Gibson played his ass off in this game, and he showed why having so much bench depth is important.
Kyle Korver humiliates the Heat and me, but I'm a lot more happy about it
I went to the game with Fred Pfeiffer of the Chicago Bullseye podcast [we did a show on the way home, which I'll link to when he publishes it], and at some point uttered the phrase "You can't play Kyle Korver against Miami, they just abuse him too badly defensively".
I'm sorry Kyle. Kyle Korver had one of those games where everything he thew up went down. He hit big shot after big shot for Chicago. He was 5/6 from downtown, and the pressure he added to the Heat defense was immense. It got to the point where they ran two guys at him every time he touched the ball, creating plenty of openings for Chicago.
Asik and destroy
You'd think Asik gave you very little if you looked at his stat line, but I'm pretty sure Asik just solved the stray dog problem on the streets of south beach. At least 12 men will be looking to acquire one when they get back to Miami. [okay, that was bad, I blame it on being deliriously happy]
Asik completely shut down the paint. Miami had nothing inside. They couldn't drive or get easy shots at the basket. Asik shut them down on the interior, rotated smoothly, did a great job on the glass, hedged on the pick and roll, and double teamed smartly. It was a brilliant execution of big man defense by Omer. Truly a thing of beauty.
What impressed me most about Omer was that he had to rotate out to play help defense, but then recovered after the shot to still get defensive rebounds when he no longer had good position after the initial hedge. That's an incredibly difficult task to do, but Omer really made it work.
He still scares me to death when he touches the ball on offense, but when he's dialed in defensively, he's an absolutely elite interior defender.
Ronnie Brewer owned Dwyane Wade
I don't know what the splits were when Brewer was on Wade, but it wasn't good for Wade. Brewer was just tremendous defensively, and while he didn't play in a bunch of the Bulls best lineups last night, his defense really helped hold off the lions at times where the Bulls could have let this thing slip away. At one point in the first half, Brewer defended Wade successfully on consecutive isolation plays simply making him look terrible.
Carlos Boozer kept the Bulls around
Boozer did a nice job scoring in this game. He's become almost exclusively a mid range jump shooter, but he knocks it down so consistently. While he won't win any defensive MVP awards, his effort level has improved much more this season, and he looks pretty good in the Taj/Boozer wrinkle which Thibs has started using recently.
At a time when the Bulls were struggling with points, Boozer delivered to keep them close, and his defense wasn't a negative factor at all.
So now we get to the bad news
Joakim Noah didn't seem to really have it going on. I think part of the problem was that the Rose based lineup which he played in almost exclusively [possibly all his minutes were with Rose I'm not entirely certain] struggled mightily largely due to Rose's struggles. However, Noah struggled to get bring the energy and defense you expect. Taj Gibson came in and did what we expect Joakim noah to do.
Now, Noah wasn't, but it simply wasn't his night either.
Rip Hamilton looked like a train wreck to me. Fred had said to me he thought Hamilton played well in the third period, but outside of knocking down an open three, I don't remember him making any plays. He also continues to throw a couple inexplicable passes every game where he tries to thread the ball into a guy who's triple teamed in the paint on a play that has no chance.
Rip's still trying to adjust to the team, but he didn't have a quality game. Much like with Noah, he played all his minutes in the Bulls lineups that generally struggled badly.
And of course Derrick Rose...
What do you do with Derrick Rose?
I said he did not look healthy in the NY game two games ago, that was somewhat obscured by the fact he scored 29 by knocking down four threes and getting free throws. In this game, he had a play where he started with the ball even with three heat defenders, tried to push it up the court and got beat by all three.
That shows the lack of explosiveness he's playing with right now. Derrick struggled to finish shots he normally finishes, couldn't take Ronnie Turiaf off the dribble, and couldn't push the pace of the team on the break. It was the worst game of his career, and he looked like he was simply not ready physically.
So I don't blame Rose for not being ready. I credit him for wanting to help his team. I credit him for toughing it out when he likely doesn't feel good, and I credit him for being genuinely happy for the guys who won while he sat on the bench.
That said, the Bulls still need to decide what to do with Rose now. Does he need more rest to recover fully? He's clearly not 100% right now. Does he only gain that explosiveness back by playing real minutes and attempting to use it? I don't know which way the Bulls should go there.
They do have two games off before Sunday's tilt against Detroit for Rose to rest up. At this point, we can only hope he's truly ready for the playoffs in two weeks.
Magic number update
Heat - 5 (without tiebreaker, 4 with it)
Thunder - 6 (lose tiebreaker)
Spurs - 5 (win tiebreaker)
Indiana - Indy can no longer finish ahead of Chicago with the Bulls win, so Chicago clinches their 9th division title.
The Bulls all but locked up the #1 seed in the East. With seven games to play, the Bulls would need to drop three games and lose the tiebreaker to fall out of the #1 seed slot. However, on top of that, one of those seven games can't be against Dallas.
The Bulls remaining schedule is:
@Detroit, Washington, @Charlotte, @Miami, Dallas, @Indiana, Cleveland
Hard to see where the Bulls lose three games if one of them isn't Dallas. Is Chicago really going to drop one of the @Detroit, Washington, @Charlotte, or Cleveland games [and then both @Miami and @Indy?]. Even if they did, can Miami really win out at this point?
So, or all intents and purposes, the battle for the #1 seed is over. I called this the most important regular season game of the year, and Chicago stepped up to the challenge despite the odds stacked against them with Rose unable to contribute.