By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – The reactions were the best part.
There was Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic, both arms raised, taking in the biggest scene of his professional career. There was veteran Mike Dunleavy, right hand raised as he embarked toward the group hug. There was the affable Jimmy Butler with a subtle left fist pump and slow trot back to the chaos, the exhaustion of 44-plus minutes defending LeBron James melding with the elation of the moment.
And then there was Derrick Rose. As the United Center crowd roared Friday night after he banked in a miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 99-96 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers and 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, Rose remained stone cold.
There was no smile from Rose. There was no primal scream. There was no gaudy display of any sort.
There was simply a look of determination, a strut back to the Bulls’ bench, a leap into the arms of friend Joakim Noah and an understanding of the moment.
“It’s really hard for him to really smile like that,” teammate Taj Gibson said of Rose. “I see him smile all the time, but he really doesn’t show it out in the open as far as in the game.”
Keeping his calm demeanor later, Rose downplayed the idea that he was “taking over” in the fourth quarter, when he had 14 of his game-high 30 points and added two of his seven assists. His joy came in having the opportunity to live up to the expectations of himself, his team, his city and a basketball world that with every performance like this is re-embracing him as one of the league’s elite.
“I don’t mean to sound cocky, but that’s a shot you want to take if you are a player in my position,” Rose said. “I’m thankful and grateful that my teammates gave me the ball. They believe in me. Down the stretch, they kept giving me the ball and encouraging me to play the way I usually play.”
With so much riding on the outcome of this series – a favorable path to the NBA Finals, perhaps a precious chance at a title, James further cementing his legacy, Tom Thibodeau’s coaching future in Chicago, the uncertainty an early exit could bring in Cleveland – it’s surreal that the games are decided by the littlest differences, perhaps a roll here and an inch there. That was certainly the case Friday in an undeniably crucial Game 3 whose victor has gone on to win the series nearly 82 percent of the time the matchup is even after two games, according to whowins.com.
With the Bulls leading 94-93 after Butler drove baseline under the basket and reverse pivoted back under the hoop for a close-range layup, James had the look he wanted to give Cleveland the lead back. He drove right lane on Butler, who flew under him, but as James rose for a layup with 24 seconds left and Gibson arrived late on the challenge, he appeared to not have full control of the ball and pushed it a bit far.
“I expect to make every shot I take, but sometimes the law of averages, it doesn’t happen that way,” James said.
“I got a good look at it, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Gibson followed with two free throws before the cold-blooded J.R. Smith tied the game with a 3-pointer on a dribble hand-off from James.
That set the stage for Rose, who had the ball poked away by James with three seconds left, setting up a sideline out of bounds in the frontcourt. Thibodeau called a timeout, drawing up a play in which both Rose and Butler were “primary options,” he said.
The problem was neither was open initially. James blanketed Butler on a run to the rim and subsequent trek to the corner. The play called for Rose to get the ball heading toward the near left corner – he’d made a pretty stepback jumper from that area earlier – but Iman Shumpert was on his hip.
It was, in Rose’s words, “a broken play” at that point, so he cut back toward the top of the arc. Rose took the pass from Mike Dunleavy, and Gibson alertly set a screen. That and two dribbles gave Rose the sliver of space he needed to bank in the 3-pointer from 26 feet over the outstretched right arm of Tristan Thompson.
“And no, I did not call glass,” Rose said.
The Bulls mobbed Rose, with Noah saying he could hardly remember even bear-hugging and lifting Rose up.
“That’s his greatness,” Thibodeau said of Rose getting the shot off from such a tough angle. “There’s not many like him. There’s probably not any that combine the speed, the quickness, the power.”
Rose’s shot was Chicago’s first playoff buzzer-beater since Michael Jordan did so in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals, per the Elias Sports Bureau. There remains a steep climb for these Bulls to accomplish the same feat of winning the title like the ’97 version did, but at least for one night, a familiar sight had returned.
Once again, there was a star shining in crunch time in the playoffs, for a team with championship hopes, and the madness returning to the Madhouse on Madison.
“So much emotion, man,” Gibson said of his thoughts on Rose. “I’m happy for him. He really deserves it. So much up and down, so much criticism, but he just stayed the course. He knows that we have his back. When he hit that shot, the emotion you see him playing with and how he ran to jump into Jo after he made that shot, it showed he’s feeling good.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.