Bulls hold two game lead on Celtics for top seed after 99-96 grind-it-out win over Grizzlies

As Luol Deng said after the game to Gail Fisher of Comcast SportsNet, the Bulls beat the Memphis Grizzlies 99-96 despite getting outworked most of the night. As Deng put it, the Bulls simply won because they had better players, more talent.

Give the Grizzlies credit, they gave the Bulls a fight, preparing the Bulls for what playoff basketball will look like: Physical and full of smack-talk.

The Bulls, who improved to 52-19, got 24 hard-earned points from Derrick Rose, but he struggled from the field throughout the game shooting 6-for-22, including missing all five three-point attempts.

Deng backed up Rose's 24 with 23 of his own and included six rebounds and three three-pointers.

Let's take a closer look at Friday's win against the Grizzlies:

What led to the Bulls win:
Rose struggled shooting the basketball most of the game and looked very tentative to take it hard to the rim in the first half. He shot just 2-for-10 in the first half for six points, but the Bulls still hung onto a 49-46 lead going into halftime.

Rose has faced many point guards that are better defensively than Mike Conley, but it just seemed like Rose settled for jump-shots against the 6'1" guard.

Rose came out on the attack in the second half, though, scoring 10 points in the third quarter. His jumper still wasn't falling and looked flat most of the night, but Rose went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the third quarter alone.

As all great players do, Rose found a way to manufacture points in other ways with his jumper not falling; he also looked angry several times with the lack of calls.

If you didn't watch the game, the 6-for-22 from the field and 0-for-5 from the three-point line might turn you off to Rose's performance, but he came up clutch when the Bulls needed him most. Rose had 18 of his 24 points in the second half, including the final six points for the Bulls.

Rose might have shot 6-for-22 from the field, but his 12-for-13 mark at the free-throw line made up for what was a tough night shooting the ball. 

Even with an off night, Rose flirted with a triple-double, with seven rebounds and seven assists to go along with his 24 points. Even when he struggles to shoot, Rose finds other ways to make things happen for the Bulls.

His passing wasn't as sharp as the previous two games against Sacramento and Atlanta -- as shown by his four turnovers -- but as always, Rose made the plays when the Bulls needed them most.

What does it signify: After winning their past two games by a combined 73 points, the Bulls needed a tight, grind-it-out game like this one.

The Grizzlies fell to 40-33, but they're looking like a likely playoff team in the loaded Western Conference, and played the Bulls with physicality all night.

There were five technical fouls on Friday night, but that doesn't even tell the whole story. The play was very physical and the referees let the players play a lot more than what we've seen most of the season.

The playoffs -- especially in the East -- will contain plenty of physicality and smack-talk. Tony Allen led the charge for the Grizzlies all night; although he was held scoreless in the second half, he was talking plenty of smack to the Bulls and the United Center crowd all night, at one point jawing at the crowd saying "This is my city". Is he a little jealous of Rose?

He finally picked up a technical in the third quarter, something that was a long-time coming considering how long he was jawing at the crowd and Bulls players.

The Grizzlies have defeated several top-tier teams this season, so coming in the Bulls knew they weren't going to be a walk in the park. The Bulls did what the Celtics couldn't do: Struggle at home but still come out with the win at home.

Key performances: The Bulls starters didn't hold up to their end of the bargain to begin the game, starting the first quarter off very poorly, falling behind 20-11 with 4:16 left in the third quarter. That's when Tom Thibodeau brought in Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson and Kurt Thomas, who sparked a 10-2 run to finish the quarter.

Credit Gibson, who came in for the struggling Carlos Boozer, for a fabulous night. Gibson had all six of his points in the first quarter and five of his seven rebounds in the first frame. He's really gotten use to the energy-guy role off the bench to spell Boozer.

Boozer had 12 points and nine rebounds, but struggled mightily on the defensive end. Zach Randolph made things happen for Memphis when Boozer was defending him, and in an early fourth quarter stretch, Marc Gasol simply owned him in the low-post.

That's when Thomas re-entered the game and had a key block on Randolph late in the fourth quarter. Thomas played just about 12 and a half minutes against Memphis, and it was interesting to see Thibodeau succumb to the pressures of winning to keep pace with the Celtics and Miami Heat.

He knew this was a game the Bulls needed, and went to the veteran Thomas to some critical minutes with Boozer ineffective on Randolph or Gasol.

Top seed watch: With the win, the Bulls are two games above Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics fell to 50-21 after losing to the Bobcats 83-81 in heartbreaking fashion, and it seems like they're free-falling now with 11 games left in the season.

Surprisingly, Miami's still very well in it, at 2 and a half games behind the Bulls after defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 111-99. They're only half a game behind Boston and it's looking like a fight until the finish as we head into the final two weeks of the regular season.

With Boston on the downfall, the Heat can become the Bulls' biggest threat for the top seed in the East. But the Bulls hold the season-series against Miami, and it would take a miraculous finish, paired with a Bulls choke-job, for the Heat to take the top spot in the East.

What's next: March 26th: Bulls (52-19) @ Milwaukee Bucks (29-42). 7:30pm C.S.T. WGN/WGN America/ESPN 1000

The Bulls will get right back to work Saturday night against the Bucks. The Bucks have experienced a disappointing season, but unsurprisingly, they're still in the hunt for the eight and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bucks, who are coming off a road win in New York, have struggled all season offensively, ranking dead last in points per game and field-goal percentage.

The Bulls are 3-0 against the Bucks this season, their last win coming on February 26. In the 83-75 victory, it was like United Center North, with the MVP chants for Derrick Rose heard loud and clear.

With 11 games remaining, the Bulls need to go 8-3 to reach 60 wins. A win in Milwaukee on Saturday night will be another step in the right direction.
       

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