No matter who the opponent is, Derrick Rose is fully confident that his Chicago Bulls have a chance to win on any given night as long as they have a sliver of hope. For a bunch that improved to 20 games over .500 this season, they have had plenty of blowout victories -- 19 by double-digits -- but they understand how to react when the going gets tough, which is exactly what happened in Tuesday night's 99-95 win over the scrappy New Orleans Hornets.
"We definitely held it together," Rose told reporters after the game. "Other teams I guess would've folded and we played defense toward the end. I think that's the best we played throughout the whole game. Just rebounded the ball, making great plays on the ball, blocking shots and we gave ourselves a chance."
In the Bulls' mind, that's all they need against any opponent, whether it's the Hornets or the Miami Heat -- a chance. Every time the Bulls took the lead and appeared to be ready to build on it, the Hornets answered right back, and vice versa. Chicago looked as if it were going to cruise without much of a threat when it took a 91-82 lead with less than four minutes left. However, the visitors responded with a 13-0 run that was capped off by Gustavo Ayon's mid-range jumper to take a 95-91 lead at the one minute, 25 second mark of the fourth quarter and seemingly had the victory in their grasp.
Yet, the Bulls closed the game with a thrilling 8-0 run, and Rose had six points during that stretch, in which he connected on four free throws and drove into the paint, drawing multiple Hornets defenders, and forced up a 13-foot floater that was tipped home by Joakim Noah. Most importantly, Rose rattled in a game-winning, 19-foot jumper over Chris Kaman's outstretched arms to put the Bulls ahead 97-95 with 19.4 ticks left. The Bulls are so accustom to seeing their franchise cornerstone come through in critical moments and know that a chance to win the game is all it takes for him to exhibit some heroics.
"We're used to being in situations like that and it just came out in our favor [Tuesday]," Rose said. "Kaman was sticking me and I just stepped back a little bit and tried to shoot the ball up as high as I could."
For his part, Rose voiced his displeasure to officials at several junctures of the first three quarters because he felt that he wasn't getting shooting foul calls. He attempted just two free throws in that span but knocked down 7-of-9 in the final frame, when he scored 13 of his 32 points and six of the Bulls' final eight. The reigning NBA MVP made sure as the game wore on that his side of view was heard when it came to communicating with the referees -- a tactic that stars around the league implement on a nightly basis -- and, clearly, it worked.
"That's who he is," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told the assembled media. "Derrick figures out what you need and that's what he's going to provide. That's who Derrick is.
"I thought our turnovers hurt us. The second shot [opportunities] hurt us. They didn't shoot a high percentage, but they got to the line. But we'll take the win."
It was far from a performance that the Bulls would even think of calling impressive, and players admitted as much after the game, hinting that the four-day layoff due to All-Star Weekend played a role in the rust they are obviously looking to eliminate over the next couple games in hopes of being fine-tuned and carrying some momentum into the playoffs. Still, the Bulls have shown time and time again during this campaign that they're never truly out of a game -- no matter the time or deficit -- and Tuesday's tilt proved indicative of that reoccurring theme.
"It was a tough game [Tuesday night] coming back after the [All-Star] break," said Luol Deng, who put up 14 points on 6-for-16 shooting, including three air balls in the first half. "It was one of those [games], had to dig deep."
Hamilton performs amid confusion: There wasn't much clarity regarding Bulls shooting guard Rip Hamilton's status for the game until about 15 minutes before tip off. The 34-year-old was not listed in the team's initial starting lineup, but he returned from a 13-game absence to post five points and five assists in 16 minutes, 51 seconds of action.
Hamilton, who hadn't played since Jan. 29 because of a sore groin and a thigh injury, scored the first three points of the game as Noah fed him for a layup. He admitted after the game that it was predetermined that he play the first eight minutes of each half and focus on regaining game shape -- and, for now, he believes he was able to make progress in both aspects on Tuesday.
"[Right now] I'm just getting used to getting out there and playing," he told reporters.
Added Thibodeau: "We just wanted to sort of get a baseline of where he is. And we want to go step-by-step with it. ... It's something to build on.
"First time out after an extended time off, there was some good and some not so good. Rip's a very intelligent player. He was trying to fit in. His playmaking was very good ... and he takes pressure off of people. He creates easy offense because you have to pay a lot of attention to him."
Meanwhile, C.J. Watson had missed the last two games due to concussion-like symptoms, although, as expected, he came back to Thibodeau's lineup and played seven minutes. He was held scoreless and missed his two field-goal attempts.
"He's coming back off an extended time out so we sort of expected that," Thibodeau said of Watson. "But he'll be fine. He did some things well; some things he's got to get his timing back."
Both Hamilton and Watson are expected to play on Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. While Watson could receive more playing time, the Bulls appear more than willing to bring Hamilton along slowly and ease him back into producing 30 or more minutes per game. As long as Hamilton doesn't suffer any setbacks, he figures to play 20-25 minutes Wednesday.