While Derrick Rose will surely grab most of the headlines, and deservedly so, the Chicago Bulls know exactly how they were able to scratch and claw their way to a 104-99 win over the New York Knicks on Monday night.
With their second- and fourth-leading scorers, in starters Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton, nursing wrist and shoulder injuries, respectively, and backup point guard C.J. Watson sidelined due to a sprained left ankle, the Bulls' recipe for success consisted of tenacious rebounding and diving on the court for loose balls -- which probably won't receive much recognition given the fact that the game featured stars such as Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and, yes, overnight sensation Jeremy Lin.
Obviously, Rose continues to impact every facet of the game on a nightly basis and he put up a game-high 32 points to go along with seven assists and six rebounds against the Knicks. The reigning NBA MVP was frustrated all night, giving the officials his two cents time and time again, but he still dropped a stellar stat line that was good enough to thoroughly outplay his counterpart, Lin, who had 15 points on 4-for-11 shooting and eight assists. Lin, whom the United Center crowd targeted as a man deserving of "Overrated" chants in the fourth quarter, held his own but, as expected, Rose was aggressive from start to finish and badly wanted to get the best of the overnight star.
"That's really the beauty of Derrick -- we needed him to score more and we needed him to play more tonight," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "... And he played extended minutes and he provided the scoring that we needed, the playmaking.
"That's how Derrick plays every night. Derrick doesn't look at it as a game of Derrick Rose against Jeremy Lin. He's looking at it as the Chicago Bulls against the New York Knicks. The bottom line with Derrick is always winning. And he's going to do all the things that are necessary for us to win. ... Right now, we're down our primary scorers so he had to score. But he'll do whatever is necessary."
Late Saturday night, Thibodeau was seemingly in fear when he discussed the Knicks' duo of perennial All-Stars, Anthony and Stoudemire. The reigning Coach of the Year praised the Knicks as a whole and understood his bunch would have to bring and sustain a high level of energy if they were going to notch another key victory on national TV.
Two days later, Thibodeau watched his injury-plagued team play sub-par on the defensive end and shoot under 40 percent from the field through the first three quarters. He gave the referees an earful all night as his starting point guard missed 17-of-29 shots and commit four turnovers. And Thibodeau admitted after the game that Joakim Noah's "conditioning is not great right now and he had to play extended minutes tonight because of all the foul trouble." Not to mention the fact that Carlos Boozer dealt with just that, playing limited first-half minutes because of foul issues.
Yet, the Bulls were able to muster up all of the hustle plays and receive critical efforts from multiple players, which has been reoccurring theme for them this season, when it mattered most. Once again, Thibodeau placed trust in his reserves to provide the much-needed spark -- and they, in turn, fit the bill in a game that featured 17 lead changes and 13 ties. But it was two members of the Bulls' "Bench Mob" who stood out on this night: Taj Gibson and seldom-used Jimmy Butler.
Gibson had a huge fourth quarter, scoring five points and grabbing six rebounds, and finished the contest with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds while shooting 6-for-12 from the field in 26 minutes of action. Most impressively, the 6-foot-9 backup forward had a whopping eight offensive rebounds -- one more than the total number of boards between New York's Stoudemire and Steve Novak.
"They were a lot more aggressive than we were," Anthony told reporters. "At the end of the game, they won the game playing harder than we did, outhustling us, outworking us. ... That really was the game-changer. The game was won with hustle plays tonight."
Gibson set the tone for the Bulls and was relentless on the glass in the decisive final frame, but in his mind it was simply another day in the office.
"Whatever I can do to help the team," he said. "When I can get the ball in Derrick's or Kyle [Korver's] hands for extra possessions, knowing that it's going to be a real high-class shot, I'm just helping the team to get any kind of energy possible. That's my job: come in, bring energy, try to make small plays and just be all over the court."
Although Gibson downplayed his game-changing performance, his teammates showered him with plenty of praise. The Bulls outrebounded the Knicks 56-38 for the game, including grabbing a season-high 22 on the offensive end for 24 second-chance points -- which they know would not have been possible without the constant energy that Gibson brought to the table, whether it was by grabbing an offensive rebound or slamming home an emphatic dunk.
"[Gibson] played unbelievable," said Noah, who snatched 10 or more rebounds for his fifth straight game Monday. "He was great. Without his energy tonight, we would've had a really tough time. So he was huge.
"That's what it's all about. The fans show love to the effort and Taj was very well-deserving tonight. He hit the glass hard. I love that."
Added Rose: "Huge ... Taj, once again, is playing good, man. He's in a rhythm with getting all the offensive rebounds, chasing them down, getting it to the point guard. And we're getting extra possessions right now."
Beforehand, Bulls general manager Gar Forman told Bulls.com's BullsTV that he expects Deng will return to the lineup "sometime this week." In the meantime, Butler, the Bulls' lone rookie, has capitalized on his opportunity and has received 28 and 29 minutes in his last two games. For the third consecutive contest, the 6-foot-7 forward appeared extremely confident on the court, piling up eight points and two rebounds to go along with several multiple-effort plays -- which Thibodeau loves -- and suffocating defense on Anthony, who had 21 points but missed 13-of-21 shots.
"Jimmy was great, great energy as well," Noah told the assembled media. "We really needed his energy. There were a lot of loose balls out there that he got to for us, and those are things that you might not see in a stat line. But he affected the game tonight and I'm proud of the rookie."
"Jimmy has gotten better and better. His practices have been his games," Thibodeau added. "He comes in early; he studies; he works; and he'll continue to improve. So we have a lot of confidence in him. ... I thought Korver made two huge hustle plays and I thought Jimmy had one too. And you need that."
Indeed, Gibson co-starred with Butler against the Knicks and has been giving advice to the 22-year-old throughout the campaign.
"Jimmy did a great job," Gibson said. "Like I told him, you never know when your number's going to be called. I had a similar situation my rookie year; I had to step in for Tyrus [Thomas] when he got hurt. And I told him, 'Always be ready to play, always shoot jumpers, never take any days off.' He responded well. He's been doing great, playing in practice or early group early in the morning. He's a phenomenal young rookie."
As of right now, the Bulls are trying to win games and regain full strength at the same time. It was been a balancing act that has looked far from pretty at times.
Still, undermanned or not, they continue to roll right along in this compressed 66-game schedule. Even on a night when Rose poured in his 10th 30-point outing of the season, a pair of reserves put their imprint all over the game to lead the way for a determined, energized squad that got past its likely first-round opponent in this year's playoffs.