1. Bulls Blooming Into More Than Rose's Team
You wouldn't need to look hard to find excuses for the Chicago Bulls right now. Playing their fourth straight game without Derrick Rose (groin) and sporting a league-low 10 losses, the Bulls more than anyone have earned the right to mail in a few games during the morass of this season's schedule. And yet, if their 85-59 razing of the Orlando Magic is any indication, Chicago is taking every opportunity to learn how to run without limping in the absence of their injured star.
The knock on Chicago -- to the extent that there is one -- has been that they're a one-trick pony, a hungry unit with ferocious defensive zeal but little to distinguish them among contenders outside of Rose's occasional brilliance. Against Orlando, the Bulls proved they've outgrown that criticism with crisp cuts, precise passing and a few unexpected contributions. While only three players finished with double-digit points, it was impossible not to get the sense that the Bulls are moving as a fluid machine even without Rose, and that this may spell doom for other contending teams.
What's more, the Bulls may be discovering a source of energy and scoring that nobody saw coming at the start of the season. John Lucas III piled up 20 points on 4-for-7 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc, suggesting that perhaps his explosion against the Miami Heat a few days ago was more harbinger than outlier. While nobody is sure whether Lucas can consistently duplicate these performances, Chicago has identified a clear candidate for the role of the combustible change-of-pace scorer for the postseason.
If the Bulls can keep finding ways to keep their blistering pace as Rose recuperates, the benefits will extend far beyond the obvious seeding advantages. With the playoffs looming, the Bulls are developing confidence that they're more than a few high screen-and-rolls, that they can succeed even without the transcendent abilities of their ball-dominating phenom. In short, the Bulls will be adding Rose to a team of players who have learned to believe in their own ability to win.
Look at the Bulls' opponent, and it's easy to see how important this belief is. While Dwight Howard was occasionally excellent Monday night, he got precious little help from his teammates, and as each in a procession of lackadaisical passes found its way into a defender's hands, you could see the confidence ooze out of the Magic's players.
The irony here is that Howard is supposed to be the superstar who relies on a system, while Rose is ostensibly the savior of an otherwise anemic unit. On Monday, though, the Bulls were the team with a strong foundation around their superstar, and they went so far as to trounce a playoff team without said star. In doing so, they gave themselves a deep well of confidence to draw from, and put the rest of the league on notice.
Danny Nowell covers the Magic for Magic Basketball, part of the TrueHoop Network. Follow him on Twitter, @dmnowell.
Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: What, are you kidding me? Dirk Nowitzki ended this game in the second half. Just ended it. Nowitzki absolutely hammered the Nuggets, who had no one to defend him at the elbow. He finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds, six assists. I think he also baked a cake and built an erector set.
LVP: Denver health. The Nuggets have all this depth and they keep losing it to injuries. Shoulder bruise to Andre Miller pending MRI, fractured thumb for Danilo Gallinari. Now all of a sudden the Nuggets are facing issues with healthy bodies. Can't catch a break this season.
X factor: Brandan Wright. The former draft bust was active around the rim and benefited from poor Denver rotations to score 15 points. Wright has turned into the kind of guy who's going to kill a team in the playoffs with hustle plays and leave fans for the other team screaming "He's still in the league?!" Great story.
Recap | Box score
X factor: John Lucas III outscored Dwight Howard. That's not a typo. Granted, the game is played on both ends of the floor. But Lucas sliced up Orlando's defense, scoring 20 points in roughly 21 minutes of playing time.
MVP: With Derrick Rose sidelined for a fourth consecutive game with a groin injury, Carlos Boozer stepped up with a double-double (24 points and 13 rebounds) to lead the way for the Bulls.
LVP: Everyone on the Magic roster not named Howard. His teammates combined to shoot 16-for-56 from the floor (28.5 percent). Credit Chicago's stifling defense.
Recap | Box score
That was AWKWARD: Chris Mullin's jersey retirement ceremony was infiltrated by boos toward Warriors' owner Joe Lacob. It took Mullin putting his arm around Lacob and a Rick Barry scolding to subside enough vitriol for the ceremony.
MVP: Kevin Love's 36-point, 17-rebound performance was easily the MVP of this game. His 12 points in the fourth quarter helped hold off a Warriors team that outscored Minnesota by 10 in the second half.
Defining moment: How about Anthony Tolliver providing the Wolves with 10 points off the bench ... in the fourth quarter? He hadn't hit a 3-pointer since Jan. 25 but made two big ones in the fourth.
Recap | Box score
MVP: In a low-scoring affair, Ray Allen's efficiency (19 points on only nine shots) made the difference, especially the three huge 3-balls he nailed over the last 12:02 of the game.
That was ugly: Basketball aesthetics took a beating as the Celtics and Hawks combined to shoot 38 percent and turn the ball over 33 times.
Defining moment: After two Joe Johnson treys brought the Hawks to within four, Josh Smith (5-for-20) jacked up a way-too-quick 3 that snuffed out the Atlanta rally.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Tristan Thompson. Thompson (27 points, 12 rebounds) took full advantage of the Nets inside, scoring almost exclusively on open dunks and layups in the lane. The Nets both (A) didn't cut him off, and (B) couldn't stop him in the air when he did.
X factor: Interior defense. The Nets' ability to protect the rim -- normally atrocious on its own -- hit a special level of awfulness. They allowed Thompson to hit a career-high in points in the first half and allowed 66 points in the paint.
That was a close one: The Nets went down as much as 15 in the first half, then clawed back thanks to sublime performances from Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace. But the ugly first quarter and poor execution down the stretch ultimately led to their demise.
Recap | Box score
MVP: While Jrue Holiday scored 30 against the Bulls on Saturday to snap the Sixers' remarkable 58-week drought without a 30-point scorer, it took him 27 shots to get there. On Monday against the Bobcats, the young guard was much more economical: He stayed around the bucket and netted 20 on 13 shots.
X factor: Inside and outside, Charlotte got beat. The Bobcats were outrebounded by 20 and let the often-offensively challenged Sixers shoot 53.5 percent from the floor and 5-for-11 from 3. And that's how you go 44 games without winning two in a row.
Defining moment: After sleepwalking through the first half -- in their defense, the Time Warner Cable Arena seems like an excellent place to nap -- the Sixers tightened up defensively after the break, rode the hot shooting of Lou Williams and Thad Young, and avoided the indignity of losing their fourth straight game, at the hands of the Bobcats.
3. Monday's Best
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs: Too good. Dirk was unstoppable early and often, finishing with 33 points (on 12-for-19 shooting), 11 rebounds and six assists ... in only 31 minutes. Yowza.
4. Monday's Worst
Orlando Magic: The Bulls' defense is pretty good, but the Magic made it look better than the '86 Bears. In the loss, Orlando shot 35.3 percent from the floor and scored only 59 points -- the second time this season they've been held to less than 60 -- which set a Chicago team record.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Crashing A Retirement Party
7. Tweet Of The Night
8. Quote Of The Night
I don't know what our plans are but I don't see it as a bad fit it if happens. What we have we're comfortable with, but he could fit anyone's team because of his leadership and his commitment to winning.
-- LeBron James, on whether Derek Fisher would be a good fit with the Miami Heat.
9. Stat Check
Tristan Thompson had 27 points and 12 rebounds and fellow rookie Kyrie Irving chipped in with 26 points and five rebounds to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 105-100 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Monday night. Over the past 25 seasons, only one other pair of rookie teammates both registered at least 25 points and five rebounds in a regulation game. On April 16, 2008, Seattle rookies Kevin Durant (42 points and 13 rebounds) and Jeff Green (27 points and 10 rebounds) both did it in a win over Golden State.
10. Dunk Of The Night