With the resurrection of Derrick Rose, the emergence of Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic, and a deep supporting cast, Chicago might be a title contender.
In last night’s game between the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks, there was this moment when Tony Snell was nonchalantly draining shots from beyond the arc, just tossing the orb up into the air with reckless abandon, not even thinking about crusty old Tom Thibodeau and the potential eye-rolling/yelling that the coach might dish out—just shooting the ball, and watching it go through the hoop. Eventually Snell cooled off, but he still finished the night 4-8 beyond the arc, scoring 16 points in 27 minutes.
Meanwhile, teammate Derrick Rose is—knock on wood—officially back. Last night he scored more points than he had in a single game since March of 2012. He finished with 34 points on 12-23 shooting, including 5-6 at the charity stripe and 5-9 beyond the arc. Throw in 5 rebounds, 8 assists (to 3 turnovers), and 3 steals, and you’ve got one of the best stat lines that any player has put up this entire postseason.
But more important than the numbers are two non-statistical footnotes. First is the aggressive demeanor with which Rose has eviscerated the Bucks. Rose looks mad. Rose looks focused. Rose looks—in the best sense of the word—reckless. He looks like one of those Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movie where they get genetically enhanced brains, or else he looks like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes if he were given a surgeon’s scalpel and asked to slice a warm stick of butter, which represents Milwaukee’s defense. Rose did all of this while—and this is the second important thing to remember from last night—playing 48 minutes, second for Chicago only to Jimmy Butler, who played 53.
Rose is on a mission, and assuming the Bulls win their series against the Bucks, and assuming their easterly neighbors from Ohio win their series, then the next test will be infinitely greater than the current one: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. If Chicago wants a true shot against Cleveland, this is what needs to happen: Rose must stay healthy and stay lethal; Jimmy Butler must regain his touch from beyond the arc; the foreign frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah must continue to distribute, rebound, and score—and they’ve got to do an even better job (how, for example, can Noah score two points in 46 minutes of playing time…?); and, finally, Tom Thibodeau must do a better job incorporating the bench.
Admittedly, last night he was hampered, as the Bulls were without rookie sensation, gunslinger of Eastern Europe, Nikola Mirotic. But still, only two players off the Bulls’ bench–Tony Snell and Taj Gibson–played more than 20 minutes. And this was a double-overtime game. I fail to see how Aaron Brooks, so great an asset while Rose was recovering, only tallied ten minutes. Thibs needs to find a way to give Rose and Butler more rest, especially when, soon, they’re going to be dealing with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Iman Shumpert and J. R. Smith, a backcourt infinitely more difficult to defend than Milwaukee’s.
All things considered, Chicago should be ecstatic—things could not have been scripted better up to this point. The Bucks aren’t a legitimate contender by any means, and they’re virtually green as far as postseason experience, but Jason Kidd has proved himself a wily coach and, after all, Milwaukee remains talented. Most critics picked the Bucks to win two games, maybe even three, but the Bulls are on the brink of a neat and tidy sweep. Assuming they get Mirotic back healthy, the next series has the potential to be a classic.