When Derrick Rose plays poorly, the Chicago Bulls far are too vulnerable. Two days after a convincing victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls nearly fell to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. Not even Luol Deng playing like he's in midseason form could help the Bulls gain separation while Rose stumbled through much of his evening. The narrow win demonstrated all the team's weaknesses when Rose struggles, including their shallow backcourt, poor shooting and stagnant ball movement.
The Bulls trudged through an odious showing at home and barely escaped with an 86-81 win Monday night. It was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. Both teams shot 36 percent, and the Bulls got outscored 38-28 in the paint by a Bobcats squad playing without Al Jefferson and his sore ankle.
Yet, as the old wisdom goes, a win is a win, and the Bulls were grateful to avoid an embarrassing loss. They moved to 6-3 on the season and 5-0 at home on a night when Derrick Rose was out of sorts for most of the game.
Luol Deng sparkled on both ends of the floor and had 21 points, eight boards and two steals. He also delivered the much-needed dagger for Chicago on a three-pointer that stretched the lead to four points with 27 seconds remaining.
Rose struggled mightily from the field and simply could not find his rhythm. In the third quarter, Rose attempted his first free throws since Nov. 8, suggesting he has lost some of his attacking mentality to settle for jump shots. The team was kept alive by the strong play of Jimmy Butler and Deng. Though Carlos Boozer came up with 17 rebounds, but he shot an ugly 5-of-17.
Through Rose's first 28 minutes on the court, he was 2-of-11 shooting for seven points. He had nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (four), and Chicago was in real danger of stubbing its toe on the Bobcats.
Then D-Rose finally came alive in the final two minutes. He converted a running bank shot from eight feet to put the Bulls up 80-76. After a Gerald Henderson triple cut the margin to one, Rose busted out a superb layup where he rushed up the middle like Matt Forte, completely ignoring defenders Kemba Walker and the aforementioned Henderson. Free throws cut the Bulls' lead to one again, and Rose found Deng for the game-clinching trey.
Rose finished with 12 points and five dimes, and he looked decidedly average for much of the game. While it is encouraging that he saved his best play for last— "It was a tough, hard-fought game and I liked that Derrick showed a lot of perseverance. He had timely buckets late," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said —it's not encouraging that the team needed that kind of clutch production to get past Charlotte in their own building.
The Bulls middling performance on Monday night is all down to Rose. As Rose goes, so go the Bulls. He looked great in the Bulls statement win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, then he looked like a different player just two days later. For the season, he had been averaging 15 points per game, but on just 34 percent shooting, not to mention 4.4 assists to 3.6 turnovers and just 2.9 free-throw attempts per game.
As he continues to recover from his lost year, Rose's game will undoubtedly round into form, but he's not back to the level where Tom Thibodeau can expect consistent and efficient production out of his MVP point guard. The hamstring strain Rose suffered on Nov. 11 is even more reason for concern, as those issues have a tendency to linger.
As D-Rose continues the long journey back to the top of his ceiling, Luol Deng will be the engine for the Bulls. He's been an All-Star in each of the last two seasons, and he's set to hit free agency in 2014. Many players have a tendency to perform at their absolute peak in their contract year, and if that's the case for Deng then the Bulls they are in for a special season.
Entering Monday, Deng had posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 17.1, which would be his highest mark in seven seasons (per Basketball-Reference.com). He's averaging a more reasonable 35.9 minutes per game with 16.4 points, 6.3 boards, a career-high 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals. He's raised his shooting percentage slightly to 44.6 percent and his free-throw shooting has skyrocketed to 93.1 percent.
With Deng playing at such a high level, the Bulls are clearly among the top three teams in the East with the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, especially given the notable struggles of the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Whether the Bulls get a middling or a standout performance from Rose on any given night, Deng's potent production will keep games close.
But when Rose is playing at his best, the Bulls are in another stratosphere as a team. They're a fearsome bunch who can whip the mighty Pacers by 16 points. But as the escape against the Bobcats proves, Luol Deng cannot bring the bulls to that higher level.
You want to win all your games, but the ones that come in the spring are far more important than the early contests. As Rose figures out his game and gains more trust in the soundness of his own body, his output will continue improving. Until then, Deng is the Bulls' best scorer and someone they can rely on every night.
Along with the Boozer and Joakim Noah, Deng will help anchor Chicago at or near the top tier of the East, but clunkers like Monday night should be expected. Whenever Rose gets cooking on a nightly basis, then and only then can the Bulls threaten the Heat and Pacers.