MIAMI -- On Wednesday night in Atlanta, when asked if a win over the Miami Heat on Sunday would be an eye-opener, Derrick Rose paused and smiled, careful as usual to try to avoid coming off as arrogant or cocky.
The Bulls have enjoyed flying under the radar all season, playing the role of the underdog to supposedly bigger and badder teams like the Heat and Boston Celtics. Rose liked that there were still people out there who doubted him, still doubted his team, and he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that as the Bulls headed into the final stretch of the regular season.
“We will have to see," he finally responded.
Deep down though, Rose knew better. He knew his team was good enough to beat the Heat yet again and sweep the season series from them and he knew that a win over the vaunted Miami three would vault the Bulls into the level that is held for the NBA's elite.
That's why Sunday afternoon’s 87-86 Bulls win came as no surprise to Rose at all. For the third straight time this season, the Bulls beat the Heat by playing as a team and playing the type of defense that has become their trademark in the second half.
And yet again, in the biggest of games, it was Rose who stepped up to the challenge one more time. The Bulls point guard scored eight of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, stating his case loud and clear for the MVP award. As he sat on the bench early in the fourth quarter, he had only one thing on his mind.
"Taking over the game," Rose said. "No matter how you do it, just make plays. And that's what I was trying to do."
In the process, Rose showed the type of emotion that he has seemed hesitant to reveal in previous years. He yelled at his teammates in the huddle, trying to pull every last drop of energy that they had.
"Just telling them to stay focused, letting them hear me," Rose said. "If I see something on the court, or somebody's doing something wrong or whatever, just trying to talk to them. Trying to communicate to them, to let them know that everyone has their back."
That’s one difference you see between the two teams over and over again. Rose trusts his teammates in key situations and he knows that the only way the Bulls are going to win, especially against the best teams in the league, is to get everyone else involved. Get a contribution from everyone.
The Heat, on the other hand, don't appear to have nearly that kind of confidence in one another. When the clock winds down, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh appear to be looking only for each other. Sure, Mario Chalmers hit a couple key shots in the waning seconds, but that is much more the exception than the rule. Rose knows his team, no matter who is on the floor, will do the dirty work to earn a win. James, Wade and Bosh would be lying if they said the same thing.
"It just means that we played well against them," Deng said of the Miami sweep. "They're right behind us. It was a big game. I thought we've been doing a good job of just focusing on us. All year, everyone wants to talk about Miami and everything and all these other teams, but we've just been doing a good job of getting better and focusing on us."
"We're just trying to play the best we can," Noah said. "I think we still have a long ways to go and we can still get a lot better and that's what's exciting about this team. Our defense is really improving and I think we can still really improve offensively as well. And that's what's exciting. I feel like we can take this pretty far."
The Bulls have the type of confidence on and off the floor that Miami is lacking. They don't doubt themselves when things are going bad because they are certain that the bad times won't last very long.
"I thought we hung tough," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "A lot of things didn't go our way in the first half. The start of the third I thought we played real well, we got aggressive, fought our way back into it. It was just a grind game all the way. And then some big plays at the end. Jo tipping the missed free throw. Lu coming up with the loose ball, making the big free throws at the end. It wasn't pretty, but we got the win."
In so many ways, that's the story of the Bulls' season to date. They continue to find a way to win almost every night. Now that they've done that, especially all three times against the Heat, they've developed the type of winning attitude that only championship contenders have.
"If you have an opportunity of beating a team like this, you've got to," Rose said. "You can't give them no confidence or whatever, because they're a good team and you know how players are when they get in the league, if you give them confidence they're going to definitely take advantage of it. And to sweep them is great."
The days of the Bulls flying under the radar at all now are over ... and Rose knows it. But that's OK. MVPs have the spotlight on them every night, and that's the way Rose wanted it in the first place, although, as usual, he deflected any MVP talk for a later date.
"I'm not even thinking about that," he said in the excited locker room, minutes after a big embrace with his brother Reggie on the floor. "Just winning. Winning takes care of everything. We let one slip in Atlanta, for us to come out here and play against a whole bunch of good teams, especially on the road, it means a lot and it tells you a lot about our team."
It also tells you a little something about Rose ... not that you didn't already know at this point.