If it wasn't cemented yet, let's just say this was the dagger, nail in the coffin, the finishing touch for Derrick Rose's MVP resume. And he did it in impressive fashion, with 30 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in nearly 40 minutes.
It was a team effort for the Bulls as they totally dismantled the Boston Celtics in the second half on their way to a 97-81 victory. In the process, the magic number to clinch the top spot in the Eastern Conference is down to one, and the Miami Heat were eliminated, since the most wins they can have is 58 and even then they'd be tied with the Bulls, who own the tiebreaker over Miami.
Tonight, was all about Rose, though.
Rose had his way with Rajon Rondo the entire night, and held Rondo to seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. Remember when Rondo would have his way with Rose offensively -- going back to the 2009 playoffs, when he averaged a triple-double against the Bulls?
Yeah, those days are long gone. Rondo looked lost offensively and his moments were very short and far between. Rose played the defense that the scouting report has on Rondo: Sag off Rondo and let him shoot jumpers all night long. Rondo did that early on, and when he's doing that, you know the Celtics are reeling.
The Bulls as a team had an outstanding night on the defensive end, holding the Celtics to 38 percent shooting -- a far cry from their 48.8 shooting average on the season. It doesn't hurt that the Celtics' "Big Four" of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett shot a combined 15-for-43 (35 percent).
Backed by Rose's 10-point first quarter, the Bulls got off to a hot start, taking a 26-18 lead after the first quarter. Make no mistake about it, this was a statement game for both teams, as the Celtics told reporters before the game. They wanted this game bad.
But the start the Celtics had didn't show it. The Celtics, who fell to 54-24 after Thursday's loss, settled for a lot of jumpers early, and as Doc Rivers told the TNT's Craig Sager after the first quarter, they didn't play inside-out too often.
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah each rebounded well in the first half, and Noah passed Tuesday night's rebounding total against Phoenix in the first quarter on Thursday night, with five rebounds in the opening frame.
Boozer had his moments offensively with 14 points, but after opening the game looking putrid defensively, he settled down quite nicely. The 12 rebounds for Boozer are great, but after Jermaine O'Neal scored two baskets within the first three minutes of the game, he was held scoreless for the rest of the night and had zero rebounds in over 16 minutes.
Boozer played much better than his stats indicate and gave the Bulls an option in the low-post. That's all they need out of Boozer.
The Celtics made a run to begin the second quarter after the Bulls took a brief 11-point lead early in the second quarter, and with Rose taking a breather for the first six minutes of the quarter, the Bulls' eight-point first quarter lead diminished to 33-29.
Once Rose came back, though, the Bulls finished the quarter strong, finishing the half on a 10-2 run, taking a 48-43 lead into halftime.
The opposite can be said about Luol Deng, who played a foul-plagued first half and scored just five points. It looked as if Deng was headed towards an off night, mired in foul trouble, but he turned the corner in the third quarter, scoring 11 of his 23 points in the third quarter (18 of his 23 in the second half).
Deng, who chipped in six rebounds, played excellent defense on Pierce all night, as Pierce shot 6-for-13 from the field and missed four of his five three-point attempts. It was a rough night for the 2009 Finals MVP to say the least. But that was the case with the entire Celtics team, as they shot 2-for-10 from the three-point line, were outrebounded 44-35 and dominated in the paint, getting doubled in points in the paint (44-22).
"We wanted to play better than we had been playing," Boozer said to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "We
had been struggling with our 'D.' We talked about it in practice and
before the game and this was one of our better efforts."
With Tom Thibodeau the head-man in Chicago, there hasn't been much wavering in the Bulls' game-to-game focus; they're much more focused on the goal, using the "taking it one game at a time" cliche more and more lately. I guess that's what they have to say -- even they know the top spot is there's; now they've just got to keep playing hard and maintain their focus for the playoffs.
"This was definitely a playoff-type atmosphere," Noah said. "They went
hard. We went hard. And we handled our business. These are teams we can
face down the road. So it's always good to send a statement."
That it was. The announced crowd was 23,067 and it was certainly a playoff-type atmosphere at the United Center. And things started getting physical and chippy beginning in the third quarter -- similar to the playoffs.
The Celtics jumped out to a 49-48 lead on the Bulls behind a 6-0 run to begin the third quarter, as Rondo finally got on the scoreboard with two buckets after being held without a point in the first half.
The Bulls then followed with a 10-0 run, to take a 58-49 lead. That wasn't all, the Bulls went on to finish the third quarter on a 23-11 run after Boston's short-lived one-point lead early in the quarter.
We all know about Keith Bogans' weaknesses. It's been well-documented throughout the season. And looking at the stat-sheet after Thursday's game, you might not think Bogans had much of an impact, but boy, did he.
Bogans played physical, hard-nosed defense on Allen, running him off screen's all night. That's anything but easy. Allen shot 3-for-11 and was held without a three-pointer; although Bogans only played 17 minutes, he took Allen off his rhythm, and his tie-up with Allen in the back-court began the physical play.
That's what playoff basketball will be like. The Bulls haven't had to bang with many teams this season, but that's what playoff basketball is all about. You won't get by playing timid.
Kurt Thomas, who played the bulk of the minutes at center for an ineffective Noah in the second half, got into it with Glen Davis early in the fourth quarter, inevitably picking up a technical foul. With the Bulls up 76-62, the technical foul had no impact on the game, but Thomas wouldn't allow layups -- something that had to make Thibodeau in a jolly mood -- instead, delivering hard fouls.
Thomas played for most of the fourth quarter, as Noah sat the final 15:18 of the game with the Bulls having their way in the final frame. Did it have something to do with his ankle? It could have; his ankle is still swollen, yet he's continued to play. He's a gamer.
"Tonight had nothing to do with the ankle," Noah said. "We played well
with Kurt and there was no reason to change it. My ankle feels good. I'm
going to play through it."
The Bulls didn't change the lineup. Thomas, who finished with two points and five rebounds, was the first center off the bench in front of Omer Asik. There's no question this was a playoff preview in terms of the Bulls rotation. Thibodeau rides his veterans, and we'll be seeing plenty of Thomas as we wind down the season and in the playoffs.
"They're not chanting MVP for nothing." Garnett said to Jon Greenberg of ESPN Chicago (Twitter feed).
Even the bully's giving Rose praise now; but Rose is as focused as ever on one thing: Winning.
"This meant a lot because you're going against a team you could see in
the playoffs," Rose said. "You don't want those teams to have
confidence. We were aggressive. There were some plays guys were about to
fight. That's the way it's going to be. We're a tough team. We grind
They didn't just grind out a win tonight, they dismantled the Celtics offensively and defensively.
"We got our a-s kicked tonight." Garnett said to K.C. Johnson (Twitter feed).
With the win, the Bulls need to win just one of their last four games to clinch the top seed in the East. The win also knocked out Miami's hopes of the top seed.
This game was a must-win for the Bulls. They had to show the Celtics -- and the national media -- that they're legit, and although they still split the season-series with Boston, the Bulls won the last two games and won Thursday night with both teams having their respective core players. Whoever won tonight would come out of the East; Miami isn't a team that the Bulls should have trouble with, as they swept them this season, and although it could be dangerous playing a team with two superstars, the Heat lack the depth and size to hang with the Bulls.
The way they're rolling, the Bulls seem poised to win out in the regular season. If they do so, it would tie them with the 1998 team's 62-win season. The end result that season, as we know, was a championship.
This season's Bulls are on the right track. And they've got the MVP on their side.
What's next: Bulls (58-20) @ Cleveland Cavaliers (17-61). 6:30pm C.S.T. WGN/ESPN 1000
The Bulls will get right back at it Friday night against the Cavaliers in Cleveland, and it will also be the start of their three-game road trip.
The Cavaliers have endured a tough season post-LeBron James, and the Bulls seem poised to play their best as the regular season winds down. The last time these teams played, the Bulls won 92-79 in Chicago led by Rose's 24-point, eight-assist night.
Rose and the Bulls will be looking to sweep the Cavaliers with a win Friday night, and an opportunity to clinch the top spot in the East. Who saw that coming?