Rose drives home his MVP candidacy

CHICAGO -- The acclaim has rolled in from coast to coast, as writers, broadcasters, players, coaches, mascots, dancing geezers -- everyone associated with the National Basketball Association -- has concurred almost in unison: Derrick Rose is the Most Valuable Player.

The sweet-smiling, hard-driving kid from the South Side is the true people's champion, and while it took a little time for the outsiders to catch on, there's little time or reason for an argument.

"If this game doesn't put the stamp on the MVP vote, I don't know what else you can say," Joakim Noah said.

Rose played at another level Thursday night in a nationally televised 97-81 win over the Boston Celtics that made the Bulls' coronation as No. 1 seed in the East a mere formality.

Rose finished with 30 points, eight assists and five rebounds, hitting nine of 16 shots and all 10 free throws. He was artistic and disciplined and at times just plain brilliant.

"They're not chanting MVP for nothing," Kevin Garnett said. "His play is doing all the talking."

Rose, of course, demurred any talk of personal awards. He threw a new wrinkle in his humility campaign, passing his vote to teammate Luol Deng.

"He's the most consistent player this year on our team," Rose said. "Playing defense, playing when he's hurt, just playing tough. This year, man, he got my MVP vote."

Deng gets a lot of credit in his locker room. He certainly shed his Charmin label by playing every game thus far and proving he can be the perfect running buddy to Rose. Deng finished with 23 points and six rebounds, playing hard despite foul trouble. That's great, but that's what was expected of Deng when he signed his large second contract. Deng is a poor man's Scottie Pippen. Derrick Rose is just Derrick Rose.

"The guy's special, and he does it with the right mindset," said Noah, who has become an expert at lavishing Rose with praise. "You say the same thing every day, the same praise. He comes in with the same mentality every day, he's a hard working dude, tough as hell, and it's great to have someone like that on your team."

Rose had little problem attacking the Celtics' defense, with Garnett consistently a step late in closing the lane, and perhaps Danny Ainge now sees why it was a bad idea to shed Kendrick Perkins. The Bulls don't fear Boston anymore.

"He was tough," Rose said. "He was really tough to go around. They're different."

Rose's two best moves of the game came on drives, which was no surprise.

"That's just the way I play," he said. "I came into this league as a driver, not a shooter or anything, so my strength is driving."

With the Bulls, who improved their record to 58-20 with the win, up 24-16 with less than a minute to go in the first quarter, Rose was dribbling at the top of the key with Rajon Rondo, his supposed superior as a "pure" point guard, guarding him and Glen Davis showing on the double-team. Davis picked up a rolling Carlos Boozer, leaving Rondo all alone, and Rose instantly recognized what he wanted to do.

He froze Rondo with a crossover and zipped to his right, going hard at Nenad Krstic. Rose then split Krstic and Glen Davis for a nifty scoop off the glass.

That was just an appetizer.

With the Bulls up 35-33 midway through the second quarter, Rose got a screen from Boozer and turned the corner on Garnett, releasing a floating runner that banked high off the glass as his momentum carried him out of bounds. You've probably already seen it 100 times on the Internet. If you haven't, take a break and watch it now.

You know what? Just go watch it again anyway. Sometimes there aren't words.

What was he thinking when that shot went in? Was it an homage to Pippen, who got honored at halftime, like his Michael Jordan shrug earlier in the season against the Lakers?

"Luck," Rose said. "A lot of luck. No, I didn't call it. I was just thankful it went in, because Thibs would be highly upset if I didn't make it."

The most important thing isn't that Rose put up another MVP effort. It's that he did it against a possible playoff opponent and the one, true playoff-tested team in the East. It was important because Rose feels responsible for carrying a first-place team. You'll never find him pinning the blame on his teammates for a loss or questioning coach Tom Thibodeau's decisions.

For those of us who were at the United Center on Tuesday for a 97-94 win over Phoenix, you could see the seeds of this performance being planted in Rose's head. After the game, he lamented the Bulls' lost lead, treating it almost as a loss.

That's not just Thibs-speak, either, but the coach and player certainly share a common goal: the perfect game.

The Bulls followed their lead Thursday. While Boston resembled an aging boxer, trading blows, relying on savvy, Chicago looked like the real contender. The Bulls held Boston to less than 40 percent shooting and dominated in the paint.

"Everything they did offensively was harder than what we did," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Everything they did defensively was harder than what we did offensively. They got every loose ball, and we were the retaliator, not the instigator, all night."

Garnett was more concise.

"We got our ass kicked tonight," he said. "I haven't recalled that in awhile."

With four games left, the Bulls' magic number for clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs is now one.

Since their next game is in Cleveland, I think it would be perfectly fitting for Noah to reserve a room at one of his favorite downtown factories for a celebration.

Pippen, who has a front-row seat for every game nowadays, got a bronze bust in his honor at halftime. He cried a little as the fans chanted his name. Maybe he was remembering the lost glory days of his youth that played on the scoreboard.

Now, Pippen and Jordan will always stand guard over the United Center. But their statues represent the past. Rose is the present and the future, and both are looking brighter than ever.

They might as well start sculpting his statue.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.