Given the way Chicago Bulls guards Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton performed in Monday night's 110-95 home victory over the New Jersey Nets, it would be hard for fans to tell that the backcourt duo had only played together five times this season and that they hadn't appeared in an NBA game at the same time in nearly three weeks.
That's because Rose and Hamilton controlled the pace of the game all night, and when one was sitting on the bench, the other was in orchestrating coach Tom Thibodeau's offense as crisp as it has looked this season. Hamilton dropped 22 points, 10 assists and five rebounds while shooting 10-for-16 from the field. Rose also scored 22 points, on 9-for-16 shooting, to go along with eight assists and five rebounds.
Most impressively, the tandem had just five turnovers between them, leading the Bulls to a season-high 32 assists, compared to 10 turnovers.
It was the second consecutive game Hamilton reached the 20-point plateau. He poured in 20 in Saturday night's 95-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, a showing that gave plenty of promise to Bulls fans. But the 6-foot-7 shooting guard had that outing with Rose out because of a sore left big toe. And although Rose clearly isn't over the injury and is playing at less than 100 percent, Hamilton's big night proved that, yes, he can shine even when the reigning league MVP is in the lineup.
He continues to garner the focus of opposing defenses when he's coming off screens, or as the Bulls say, "floppy action," and simplifies the offense for all of his teammates, and I wrote as such, and more, late Sunday. There's no question that Hamilton is an upgrade at two-guard over Keith Bogans, last season's starting shooting guard. But even his fellow Bulls are surprised with his playmaking prowess, which helped him achieve his first double-double since January 2010.
"I didn't know how good he was," Bulls center Joakim Noah told reporters after the game. "He's a great passer. But even if it's not him making the pass, he just demands so much attention from defenses just because of everything he can do, the way he shoots the ball, the way curls. [He is] a great teammate and he's opening up a lot of things for a lot of players."
By all accounts, Bogans was well-liked in the Bulls' locker room last season, had a good rapport with the coaching staff and, as Thibodeau and his teammates said repeatedly, was a solid fit next to Rose given his shooting. However, Hamilton, who appears to be over the strained left groin that caused him to miss 10 January contests, has brought much more aggression than Bogans, either looking for his own shot or searching for teammates, and the Bulls need that. In the eyes of many NBA followers, Rose shouldered too much of the offensive burden a season ago.
A 12-year veteran, Hamilton, who on Monday became the 120th player in league history to score 15,000 career points, demands the type of respect that Rose hasn't had in his career from his shooting guard. He can knock down a variety of shots, hitting 8-of-13 mid-range jumpers against the Nets and even making 2-of-5 three-pointers.
And most impressively, he has shown that he fits right into the selfless culture, gelling with every Bull, from backup point guard C.J. Watson to fellow two-guard Ronnie Brewer, when he's on the court.
"With me, it's not just all about scoring," Hamilton said. "There's so many great players on this team. And my job is to try make everybody's job easy. If it's scoring, if it's passing or whatever. And that's what I try to do."
Yes, Hamilton's aforementioned 22 points are nice, but he knows that kind of offensive output won't happen in most games. But his vision should remain constant and will come in handy night in and night out. In second quarter against the Nets, Hamilton came off a screen and two defenders flocked to him, one of which were responsible for Brian Scalabrine, whom Watson found for an acrobatic reverse layup that sent the United Center crowd into a frenzy. The light-scoring Omer Asik had 10 points and was another player who benefited from Hamilton's presence.
"It [means] a lot," Thibodeau said of Hamilton's play. "It's every aspect of the game. Great leadership, playmaking ability, big shot-making ability and, more importantly, he makes the right play.
"He makes the game simple, he gets easy shots for people and he runs the floor and he never stops moving. It makes your offense hard to be defended and I think that becomes contagious."
Obviously, Hamilton knows what it takes to win a ring, having won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004, and has lots of experience when it comes to battling Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade in playoff games. But, of course, the Bulls are not looking ahead and will gladly accept more games like Monday.
"We've just got to learn how to hit open shots. Joakim [Noah] and [the big men] have to do strong, quick plays to get fouled or get to the basket because Rip is definitely going to find them. He's a great passer," Rose told the assembled media. "That's something I didn't know until he came to the team. And he's definitely going to help us."
With Luol Deng (wrist) out, Hamilton took two things that usually belong to Deng: a game-high 42 minutes and a spot on the "Bench Mob" lineup that Thibodeau usually implements in the second and, at times, fourth quarter. The latter could happen on Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, as well, because Thibodeau prefers to have a starter on the court with that group.
The reigning Coach of the Year was pleased with the fact that all five starters were in double figures against the Nets. Rose started strong, scoring eight points and dishing out three assists in the first quarter, and had several sleek finishes in the second half. The Bulls know their star is hobbled up, but Thibodeau said Rose will regain his conditioning in the coming games. Last season, Rose thoroughly outplayed Deron Williams, but he had some issues defensively on Monday and allowed the Nets' star to pile up 17 points and 10 assists.
Rose brushed his ailing toe aside after the game and said it is a non-issue. Although, the fourth-year veteran had a similar take on the injury following last Saturday's game against the Toronto Raptors.
"I felt good," Rose stated. "Just wanted to get this toe injury out of the way. I didn't feel it when I was out there. So y'all don't have to worry about anything."
When asked about Rose's performance against the Nets, Thibodeau said: "To miss as much time as he did and to come out and play like he did, it says a lot about him. His timing obviously wasn't there, but he'll get up to speed very quickly. I thought he played very hard."
Then again, for Rose it's hard not to wake up for head-to-head matchups against other elite point guards -- especially now that he has Hamilton, the longtime former Detroit Piston, on his side.
"[Hamilton] is a guy that can make the offense very simple," Rose told Bulls.com afterward. "And he takes the load off of me when he's creating for others."
That certainly bodes well for the Bulls' championship aspirations, which were put on hold last year due to the lack of an impact piece at the shooting guard position. They are confident that they've found the winning combination in Rose and Hamilton.