Derrick Rose has engaged in plenty of special point-guard battles over the past two seasons, and it appeared that he would again in the Chicago Bulls' 96-89 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night. The 23-year-old seems to always shine the brightest when he's matched up with another top-tier player -- a bill that Spurs point guard Tony Parker certainly fits.
As both former NBA MVPs, Parker of the 2007 Finals and Rose of the league a season ago, went back and forth with an array of shots, from jumpers to the uncanny running floater, the game between two powerhouse teams quickly turned into a duel between Rose and Parker, a pair of stars who serve as the primary leader for their respective squads. Rose scored 11 points in the first quarter, while Parker poured in eight. Both players were fairly quiet in Sunday night's All-Star Game, but returning to a controlled, organized system, they know their role. And, clearly, as fierce competitors, Rose wanted to get the best of Parker, and vice versa.
Although Rose ended up with 29 points and four assists compared to his counterpart's 11 points and nine assists, he did get the worst of a knee on knee collision with Parker late in the first quarter. True to form, the 6-foot-3 point guard brushed the injury aside and it didn't seem to bother him as he sliced and diced his way through the Spurs' defense all night.
However, just as quickly as it looked as if the AT&T Center would be treated to the Rose and Parker show, it was evident that the Bulls' star would need some help from his supporting cast along the way.
The Spurs put the Bulls in a hole early and led for the first 13 minutes of the game, but the Bulls, as usual, inserted the "Bench Mob" lineup in the second quarter. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau has shown a lot of confidence in his reserves over the past two seasons, but the group played sluggishly Tuesday night against the New Orleans Hornets and fans didn't know what to expect in San Antonio. But C.J. Watson, who is the leader of the "Bench Mob," poured in 10 second-quarter points as the Bulls took an eight-point lead at halftime and looked to be in the driver's seat.
"C.J.'s the leader of that group," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "He came out real aggressive tonight and I thought he ran the team great. I thought that was a big part of the game was the second quarter. And then we were sort of running low on energy at the end of the third so we went to the bench earlier. And they were great at the end of the third and start of the fourth."
Indeed, the Bulls stumbled in the third quarter, when the Spurs outscored them 24-15 while Rose missed 4-of-6 shots. The Bulls' starters shot just 5-for-20 (25 percent) in the frame, attempting just five in the paint. The veteran-laden Spurs beat Thibodeau's bunch down the court several times -- even the 35-year-old Tim Duncan who put up 12 points and seven rebounds in the third period alone.
Matt Bonner knocked down a three-pointer 15 seconds into the fourth quarter and extended the Spurs' lead to 65-59. Very rarely does Rose start the fourth quarter, which he did Tuesday but not Wednesday, so with their star on the sideline the Bulls' reserves understood the task at hand. Thibodeau would've loved for his backups to tread water while Rose was sitting out, but they went above and beyond, reclaiming the lead and outworking the Spurs on both ends of the court in the process.
With Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer shooting a combined 5-for-21 on the night, Thibodeau had no doubts when it came to which players he would turn to. Ronnie Brewer went on a personal 6-0 run after Bonner's shot and connected on a critical 16-foot baseline jumper late in the contest. Kyle Korver, who had missed 12 of his last 15 three-pointers, nailed a crucial shot from beyond the arc about midway through the fourth. Joakim Noah grabbed two rebounds in the fourth and gave the Bulls yet another high-energy effort, with 13 boards (four offensive) overall. And Luol Deng -- who is an essential part of the "Bench Mob," given the fact that he can play with them at any point during the game -- knocked down a pair of long-range jumpers, one of which a dagger with 39.4 seconds left that put the Bulls ahead by four points.
"I thought our bench was terrific," Thibodeau said. "We had a lot of guys contribute. The bench in particular, they provided a big spark for us and it allowed us to buy some time with our starters. ... They did their job."
The Bulls' bench dropped a combined 37 points -- 18 of the team's 31 in the fourth -- 17 rebounds and six assists for the game. Obviously, Rose has shown that he can make plays in crunch time. He scored six points and made two crucial baskets himself in the final 12 minutes, but his teammates were able to provide a bit of much-needed help.
For the Bulls, the fact that the supporting cast did plenty of crunch-time heavy lifting of their own bodes well for not only the rest of the regular season, but also when it matters most -- the playoffs.
"We're definitely proud," Rose told the assembled media. "They play great here. They play with a lot of energy up here. And we played together, stuck through it, and came up with a big win."
In a game that had all the makings of one of the best point-guard matchups this season, in Rose versus Parker, the Bulls' supporting cast stole the show, delivering San Antonio just its second home loss. While Parker slowed down, Rose continued to elevate his game. In what the Bulls hope will turn into typical fashion, Rose's teammates followed his sensational lead.