By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) They aren’t the higher seed in the series, but they are the better one. Right now, at least.
The Chicago Bulls showed Monday night in their 99-92 win over the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals that it’s Cleveland that needs to play up to them instead of the other way around. And most of that is due to point guard Derrick Rose’s continued renaissance.
Rose led the team with 25 points, while chipping in five rebounds and five assists. He nailed 3-of-6 3-point shots while attempting zero free throws. The former stat is comforting after Rose’s notorious struggles this season beyond the arc, but the latter gives greater pause.
One way to look at Rose not being fouled once while shooting is to be nervous that he’s relying too much on shots away from the basket. It’s a valid concern, as he could just as easily go ice cold as he could be on fire. It would leave some wishing Rose would attack the basket more. Don’t count Tom Thibodeau in that group, though.
“What I loved about tonight, with Derrick, he was trusting the pass,” Thibodeau said in his postgame press conference. “Now, he makes the pass – and boom – we’ve got (Pau) Gasol. We’ve got Jimmy (Butler). We’ve got a real good shot.”
Evidently that was Thibodeau’s game plan heading into Monday. From Cody Westerlund:
“(The) Bulls continually put point guard Derrick Rose in a high pick-and-roll with Gasol. It turned out to be more efficient, and that was a big difference in the seven-point game.
“This is difficult to quantify, but in watching the game, you came away with this feel: The Bulls just got easier shots than the Cavs did. That bodes well for Chicago moving forward.”
What is quantifiable is that Cleveland shot just 28 percent from outside the paint in Game 1. The absence of Kevin Love, who will miss the remainder of the playoffs with a shoulder injury, and J.R. Smith, suspended for Games 1 and 2 of this series, was fairly glaring in that regard. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Co. suddenly aren’t the alpha of the East. (And don’t even start with arguing for the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards — Bulls-Cavs is the real Eastern Conference finals.)
Game 2 could present more of the same Bulls plan or, assuming the Cavs make appropriate adjustments going in (and that the Bulls understand their jump shooting percentage has to regress probably sooner than later), it could feature a Rose who slices and dices his way to the hoop and draws more contact and opens up his teammates as the defense collapses on him.
Regardless, the continued “He’s back”-ness of Rose’s game in these playoffs, in concert with the offensive steadiness of Gasol and Mike Dunleavy and the continued coming-out star party of Butler’s season, puts the Bulls in the catbird seat in this series and what should then be their presence in the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s not overzealous to claim that after one game of this series. The Cavs didn’t have a lead in Game 1 at any point, including a fourth quarter that featured only two points in eight-and-a-half minutes from Rose (though he created five more on assists) in an otherwise stellar game from him. The cynic will cite that quarter as a “Yeah, but” refutation of Rose’s re-emergence.
But Rose and the Bulls understand that the former MVP doesn’t need to be the guy for four quarters, and if he’s making and creating shots for three of them while his teammates are doing their respective things, the opponent hardly has an answer for this Bulls team — one that got a total of zero points combined from Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic on Monday, no less.
Thibodeau reiterated how impressed he has been with the gradual return of Rose’s game.
“I don’t know of a guy who has gone through what he’s gone through,” Thibodeau told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. “You’re 22 years old. You’re the MVP of the league. And it’s been smooth sailing. One year in college, the championship game. Rookie of the Year. Conference finals. League MVP. And from the point he got that MVP until now, it’s been all adversity. He’s had to navigate through that. One year of rehab, that’s a test of your will. But to do it three years? That’s a tough deal. And he’s still working at it.
“When you miss that much, it takes you a long time to get it back. And to get that rhythm back into the game. I think he’s learned a lot going through it. All of that adversity, it’s been seeds of growth for him.”
Those seeds have bloomed, and that is the East’s biggest problem now as the Bulls with a retro Rose are its most complete team. Furthermore, a team that has habitually played down to inferior teams this regular season and postseason while rising in the presence of the league’s best is playing at a high level against the best.
It’s safe to assume the Bulls retain that bloodlust against a big boy team that is very much not the Milwaukee Bucks. And with a retro Derrick Rose as a major catalyst in that stepped-up collective game — whether on the pick-and-roll or at the rim — the Bulls winning four games before losing four seems a lot more probable.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.