Bulls regain edge as Rose shows his is getting ever sharper

CHICAGO — Fresh off an old-fashioned Bulls stampede, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich started his postgame press conference by following up on a pregame question.

“Whoever asked me that question before the game, ‘They’re not listening to Thibs and Thibs has lost them’ and that kind of bulls---, you got your answer,” he said after the Bulls’ dominating 104-81 victory Thursday night. “As I told you before the game, that’s baloney, nothing could be further from the truth. Whoever asked that question hopefully can figure that out.”

So there goes that story.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s so-called “hot seat” has been downgraded to crisp. He’s still Thibs, more paranoid than half the CIA, but the Bulls’ recent cold stretch wasn’t indicative of his coaching or his standing in the organization.

After a listless two-week stretch that saw them lose six of eight games, the Bulls (28-16) came roaring back against the Spurs. Six players scored in double figures, and Chicago outrebounded San Antonio while holding the defending champs to 37 percent shooting.

The team's defense has been uneven all season, and particularly dysfunctional over the 3½ games since Joakim Noah left the first half of a Jan. 14 loss to Washington with an ankle injury.

But Derrick Rose's offensive game has been trending upward, and he came out firing Thursday. For Bulls fans, it was a welcome sight.

Rose was aggressive from the start, scoring 22 points in 26 minutes, 39 seconds, and the Bulls followed suit.

But let’s be clear. Rose wasn’t trying to “win one for the Thibber.”

There was no real issue with the coach, beside his everyday Thibs-ness. The Bulls play for themselves, as they should.

“It don’t have anything to do with Thibs, at all,” Rose said. “The way we’ve been playing don’t have anything to do with Thibs. He’s preparing us right, doing everything and did everything possible to prepare us as a coach. It’s up to us to give the effort.”

For those who only listen to Rose to nitpick his verbiage, this has been a consistent message from him all season. And now that his game is coming more easily to him, Rose is becoming more vocal.

Rose, a man who rarely shows emotion in front of crowds, called out his team Monday after a listless loss in Cleveland. The next day, the Bulls had a productive meeting, instead of practice. On Wednesday, they had a strong practice with near-full participation.

Those three days resulted in Thursday’s game, which the team led for the final 33:35 after not holding a lead for the two previous games.

Playing three quarters, Rose hit 9 of 16 shots, including 2 of 4 3-pointers, and added five assists.

Over the last five games, the light has turned on. Rose has averaging nearly 25 points during that span.

He had a bevy of throwback moves, including an outstretched, left-handed layup on Danny Green, and a crossover dribble that froze Tony Parker, which turned into a hesitation dribble to the baseline on Parker and Tim Duncan, which led to a layup. It was pretty.

“I think he’s getting better every week that goes by,” Popovich said. “He’s getting more confidence. When you come off an injury, it takes a while to get full confidence, to get up to that final gear he had when he was MVP. It takes time, but he’s getting there.”

Rose scored six points in the first quarter, nine in the second and seven in the third. He played one 45-second shift in the fourth as an homage to Blackhawks All-Stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Just kidding.

In reality, Rose was a little stiff after sitting in the third quarter. He came in for Aaron Brooks with 9:04 left in the game and came back out with 8:19 to go. Thibodeau seemed a little annoyed about it afterward, but Rose said given that the Bulls were up 21, he didn’t see a reason to return.

"I just sat for too long," he said.

Take that, minutes-counters!

Rose added that he will play Friday night in Dallas. One of Rose's confidantes told me he would make sure to remind Rose about Monta Ellis' 38-point game in the Mavericks' double-overtime victory over the Bulls on Dec. 2. Rose, his friend said, likes revenge games.

After this one, Rose talked about the importance of Tuesday’s meeting, but he added that the team’s halftime chat Thursday was also crucial.

“We wanted to come out and have the edge and play with that edge the entire game,” Rose said. “We had it the first half and came in here, talked to each other and really got on each other about coming out in the second half and coming out right.”

The Bulls scored the first seven points of the third quarter, stretching a six-point halftime lead. With 3:59 left in the third, that lead was 25. The rout was on.

Rose said the Bulls, who were still without Noah and Mike Dunleavy (also suffering from ankle issues), had to get angry.

“Get mad if they score on you, get mad if anything happens wrong, show some emotion and get mad,” he said.

But he also said the Bulls should appreciate their good fortune. After all, most of these players grew up in working households. This is still a game.

“We shouldn’t come in here and feel like we’re in a 9-to-5 [job],” he said. “And that’s no disrespect to people who got 9-to-5s, but when you play a sport for a living, you shouldn’t have that feeling. You should have that joy you remember when you were young and you was out in the park. The joy of winning games and just competing, giving your all while you were on the floor. Appreciating the game.”

For one game, that pure feeling returned. Rose wants to see it continue.

“It came back,” he said. “But we’re going to see how long it can last.”