Trailing by 11 points with 3:44 left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls appeared to be on their way to a disappointing season-opening, Christmas Day loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, but found lightning in a bottle late in the game and won, 88-87, in dramatic fashion.
They struggled to find much offensive rhythm in the second half, settling for lots of outside jumpers and getting beat on the glass against the Andrew Bynum-less Lakers front line.
Still, it was hard to count Bulls coach Tom Thiboeau's bunch out. They had plenty of late come-from-behind wins a season ago, thanks largely to No. 1, Derrick Rose, the reigning NBA MVP. Even when the team faces large deficits, they have a knack of staying composed and confident, although the body language on some of the players on Sunday might have said otherwise.
Kobe Bryant, nursing a torn ligament in his right wrist, scored two of his game-high 28 points on an eight-foot fadeaway jumper that gave the Lakers an 87-81 lead with 54.6 seconds left -- which appeared to be the dagger, given the fact that the Bulls had scored only 25 second-half points up to that point. But after Bulls forward Luol Deng scored five consecutive points to cut the Lakers' lead to 87-86 with 20.4 seconds left, the five-time NBA champion, uncharacteristically, had a critical turnover that led to the Bulls' victory.
When Bryant received the inbounds pass from Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, the Bulls immediately sent a double-team of Rose and Joakim Noah at him, looking for a steal rather than applying a quick foul. It worked, as Bryant appeared to rush into passing the ball to Pau Gasol when he saw two athletic defenders searching to strip the ball away. And, again, Deng was in the right place at the right time, intercepting the pass with about 17 seconds left and dribbling the ball across midcourt.
"He wasn't going to give it up at first because he thought we were going to foul right away," Deng told Bulls.com when asked about his critical steal. "And it was a great call by Coach to trap him. And then when he saw that we're trapping, not fouling, I was the next guy and I knew inside they're going to Artest out of bounds or Gasol, and I really wanted to take out Gasol but I made it look like I'm going to Artest. And when he threw it, it was just a lob pass and I was able to get it."
Added Thibodeau: "We wanted to get one good trap and see if we can pop it loose, and we were fortunate. A lot of guys did a great job. We got a deflection and came up with the steal and got the score. Like I said, the big thing is not quitting on the game, just keep fighting. Find a way, that's what they did."
The Bulls caught a break, though. Deng also seemed to be in a haste with the ball and plenty of fans believed that he traveled on the pass to Noah, who then quickly gave it to Rose. However, the second Deng made the steal, he could sense that his teammate was going to make a spectacular play and lift the Bulls to victory.
"It's just one of those things, as soon as we got the ball I just felt like we were going to score," Deng said. "I felt like D was going to do something with it, either score or get someone open. As soon as we got the steal, you just had that feeling."
Rose, who posted 22 points and five assists, dribbled the ball down the court, checked the Lakers' defense, dribbled right and pulled up for a right-handed floater from nine-feet out, giving the Bulls an 87-86 lead with 4.8 seconds to play. The air went out of the Staples Center crowd and the Lakers were stunned -- but Rose's clutch basket was nothing Bulls players, coaches and fans had not seen before. Rose said afterwards that his game-winner, a floater, is "something I'm just used to doing if I'm going to my right hand and they let me get to my right and that's how it got up."
"It's one big shot after the next," Thibodeau told the assembled media. "It's been that way certainly all last year and starting this year. He's something."
Added Deng: "Once again, he just made an unbelievable play."
Rose played the role of hero, but he praised Deng's performance on both ends of the court. The 6-foot-8 Deng defended Bryant on the final play of the game and forced the former league MVP to drive right and attempt a shot over a swarm of defenders, including Noah and Taj Gibson. Deng capped off a 21-point, seven-rebound performance by blocking Bryant as the buzzer sounded.
"I really trust our defense; I trust our bigs," Deng said. "I wanted to crowd him so he doesn't have the jump shot, and if he drove I knew our bigs are going to be there. And that's exactly what happened: he drove, our bigs are there, he hesitated a little bit and I was able to come back to the play. But our bigs did a good job of holding him up."
The Bulls shot 12-for-48 (25 percent) in the second half, received foul-plagued efforts from Noah and free-agent addition Rip Hamilton and an up-and-down showing from Carlos Boozer, who put up 15 points and seven rebounds. Yet they begin the 2011-12 campaign 1-0 before visiting the Golden State Warriors on Monday night. As the saying goes, a win is a win, and Rose knows the importance of it.
"Thank God we just won this game," Rose said. "I think that we showed fight. We definitely don't want to be in a situation like that, but we fought our way back.
"I'm not complaining. I'm not complaining at all. We got the win, we got another game tomorrow and we got to take it from there."
"What I did like a lot was the resolve at the end to just find a way to win the game," Thibodeau added. "We had a lot of guys dig in and make some hustle plays. Of course, Lu with the big steal and Derrick with the big shot. And then some real good team defense on the last play."