That meant the return of Derrick Rose, the straw that stirs the drink for Tom Thibodeau's Bulls, who had missed four of the past five games with sprained ankles. With Rose on the court, it should come as no surprise that the starting unit played its best all-around game of the season. Rose scored 24 points with seven assists, Jimmy Butler continued his solid shooting with 19 points and Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol combined for 30 points, 29 rebounds and 10 assists.
"It was really nice," Gasol said of finally playing with the Bulls' intended starting five.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson have garnered a lot of praise in the past few months for putting together the deepest roster in Thibodeau's tenure. But as solid as this group looks on paper, they know this team is only going to go as far as Rose takes them.
Rose has the rare ability to make everyone around him better, as he showed on Monday.
"Derrick's a hell of a player," Noah said. "It means having your best player on the court, our floor general. It means a lot. When he's out on the court, he demands so much attention and it opens up a lot of easy opportunities for everybody else."
That might be the single biggest reminder from this game: Rose's ability to penetrate opens all kinds of space for his teammates. What has to please Thibodeau is that even when Rose couldn't find his shot during a few possessions in the waning minutes and the Bulls clinging to a 90-88 lead, there was Gasol to knock down a jumper off the ball movement that included a Mike Dunleavy assist. During the next possession, Rose set up an even bigger 3-pointer from Butler for a 95-88 lead with 1:55 remaining just as. Those are the types of possessions that the Bulls are hoping for in May, not just November.
"I think we're such an unselfish team that everybody's finding everybody in positions to score," Butler said. "I think that's one of the pluses of this team; we're each willing to make that extra pass so the next guy can get a great shot."
Lost in the excitement of Rose's return was the fact that Noah played easily the best game of his young season. As he continues to make his way back from offseason knee surgery and, more recently, a bad case of the flu, the All-Star center was more active than he has been in his five games this season with 13 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.
"I thought Jo, that was one of his best games," Thibodeau said. "You can see [his game] is coming. He and Pau were terrific inside battling and played very well off each other, too. And you're seeing Jo with the multiple-effort-type plays and that's huge for our team."
With Noah slowly improving, Rose continuing to shake off rust, and Gasol, Butler and Dunleavy all learning to play with each other, the Bulls offered a glimpse of what could be. This is the team that believes it can win the organization's seventh NBA championship this season. Gasol came to Chicago for that chance.
"It was good," Gasol said. "It was great to have everyone, the full roster, on the floor available and healthy. So now we just got to keep it that way."