NEWARK, N.J. -- The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started with 7:24 left in the first quarter at the Prudential Center. They just weren’t for New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams.
Instead, it was Williams’ counterpart, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, that was being showered with all the praise. And Rose certainly played like an MVP on Thursday night, leading the Bulls to their eighth straight victory.
Despite not being at his best, Rose overcame an 8-for-23 shooting performance to net a team-high 21 points, while holding Williams to just five points -- his first single-digit scoring effort all season -- on 1-for-12 from the floor in the Bulls’ 84-73 win over the Nets before a crowd of 18,351.
“I just wanted to make it tough on him,” said Rose, who set the tempo on the defensive end by stuffing Williams on the first possession of the game. “I’m just always playing hard on defense on him, battling him and contesting shots. He’s a great player. He’s a player I look up to.”
Coming in, the "D-Will vs. D-Rose" battle was viewed as a clash between arguably the two best floor generals in the NBA. But Rose made it about as one-sided as possible -- especially down the stretch.
With his team trailing 71-69 late in the fourth quarter, Williams threw an ill-advised cross-court pass to Sasha Vujacic that was picked off by Rose, and he ended up going coast-to-coast with lightning speed, eventually finishing with a layup at the rim that gave the Bulls a four-point edge with 3:18 remaining. The Nets (22-44) never recovered from Williams’ miscue.
“He’s explosive,” said Williams, who dished out a game-high 11 assists, but didn't score in the final stanza. “He’s always in attack mode. He puts so much pressure on the defense. There’s not one person in the league that can stop him.”
The Nets surrendered 19-year-old power forward Derrick Favors, 27-year-old point guard Devin Harris and two first-round draft picks a day before the Feb. 24 trading deadline for Williams because they believe he’ll eventually have a Rose-type impact on their franchise. However, they haven’t been able to see his full arsenal yet because of an ailing right wrist, which won’t be able to fully heal until the end of the season. Doctors have said it's going to take 3-4 weeks for that to happen, but Williams has said the Nets "didn't trade for me to sit."
“He was aggressive to score and took it the basket really hard, but it just didn’t happen,” said coach Avery Johnson, whose team wound up shooting just 34.9 percent and scored a season-low 73 points.
“They play good team defense,” backup point guard Jordan Farmar said of the Bulls (49-18), who came in ranked first in the NBA in defense, yielding a league-low 91.1 points per game. “You have to make tough shots. That’s what they want you to do. And when you’re taking tough shots, they don’t go, you don’t get a couple fouls, it gets frustrating on you. I saw D-Will miss point-blank layups, just being out of rhythm and being frustrated a little bit.”
That much became evident in the second quarter, when Williams, clearly upset that a foul wasn’t called, began barking at the officials. It may have alleviated his frustration for a bit, but in the end, it just wasn’t his night.
“I haven’t shot over 50 percent since I hurt my wrist,” said Williams, who has made just 32 of his 99 shot attempts (33 percent) in his seven games with New Jersey (3-4). “It’s frustrating. It’s been a frustrating last couple months for me, because I know I can’t do the things I want to, but it is what it is.”
Meanwhile, Rose’s team continues to thrive even without power forward Carlos Boozer -- and for much of the season before that center Joakim Noah -- in its lineup. That’s why the 22-year-old is the odds-on favorite at this point to capture his first NBA MVP award of his already heralded career.
“You hear [the MVP chants from the crowd], but you can’t let it bother you,” said Rose, who came in ranked eighth in the NBA in scoring (24.8 PPG). “You have to stay humble, stay the same and stay focused because you’re going to hear it every night.”
So does Rose get more amped up on a night like this one because he’s playing against Williams?
“No,” Rose said. “That’s everybody in the NBA. You just can’t pick certain people out to play hard, because every night you got someone coming after you, especially at that point guard position. Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Devin Harris, I could go on and on. We’re all good point guards. Every single night you gotta bring your game, because somebody is looking to make a name off of you. So you gotta bring it every night.”
Rose has. That’s why his team is headed for another playoff berth -- possibly a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference -- and he’s about to garner a myriad of accolades for his performance. And he eventually sees a similar future for the Nets with Williams running the show.
“Hopefully, he will bring some life back to the city,” Rose said. “I see the fans are coming in. They’re great. I see they’re cheering for him, cheering for the team, even though they have a slight chance of making the playoffs. They’re still coming, and that’s great. The future is looking bright for this organization.”
The Chicago Bulls have a bright future too. That’s because they have an MVP candidate at the most important position in the NBA.
Rose wasn’t at his best on Thursday night, but he made up for it in other ways.
Williams just couldn’t.
And in the end, that was the difference, plain and simple.
As it turns out, the much ballyhooed "D-Will vs. D-Rose" battle was no contest.
You can follow Mike Mazzeo on Twitter: @MazzESPN