By K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune –
Poor C.J. Watson.
His reward for sinking a three-pointer to force overtime in Thursday’s dramatic victory over the Heat? Guarding Derrick Rose in 3-on-3 on the Bulls’ off day Friday at the Berto Center.
Rose sounded — shall we say — focused, competitive and committed to righting his wrongs after his career-low, two-point game against the Heat. It featured the league’s reigning most valuable player missing 12 of 13 shots and, remarkably, getting benched down the stretch in favor of Watson.
At least Rose won’t give Watson a black eye, as Michael Jordan famously did to Steve Kerr during a dynasty-era practice.
Don’t mistake Rose’s genuine humility and team-first mantras for softness. This will be a player seeking to shave off his rust and find his explosiveness over the Bulls’ final seven regular-season games.
“I’m just trying to get my rhythm back,” Rose said late Thursday. “I’ve had worse games than this. These games right here will make me a better player, a stronger player. I’m just happy we got the win. That’s the only thing that matters to me. C.J. and the other bench guys played great. They’re the reason we won.
“It’s going to take a little time. (Friday), I’ll come in, try to get my rhythm back, play 3-on-3 again. I was trying to be aggressive. My shots just weren’t falling.”
Rose also showed rust in the first half of Sunday’s overtime loss to the Knicks, his first game back after missing 12 with his groin injury. But he posted a near-flawless, 14-point third quarter and scored 29 points — albeit on 8-for-26 shooting with eight turnovers — overall.
Translated: Coaches and teammates aren’t worried about Rose rallying. He has missed 23 games after all and has played just two games the last month.
“He’s going to be a little rusty; I don’t care who you are,” Kyle Korver said. “It has been a hard year for him. You’re 23. You’re MVP. You come in and get four different injuries in this crazy season with all these games.
“Not many superstars can take the criticism he gets and play the minutes he does and still keep the head that he has. He’s a really humble guy who is all about winning. Obviously, he has the ball most of the time because he’s an MVP and a great player. But if someone else is open, he will pass the ball. He’s there for us.”
Rose will have to be if the Bulls want to translate regular-season success into a playoff victory over the Heat, should those teams meet. The same storylines will prevail: Can depth, defense, rebounding and one star overcome defense and three stars?
“We have more confidence in ourselves,” Rose said. “We’ve been together for awhile. We know each others’ tendencies, where guys want the ball, who is supposed to shoot in certain lineups. We love playing with each other.”
Coach Tom Thibodeau, whose extraordinary decision to ride Watson over Rose worked perfectly, agreed.
“Our team has great character,” he said. “Our guys understand sometimes it’s a matchup going good or a group going good and when one is going well the other group supports them. We have a true team.”
And though everybody agrees that team is far superior with Rose, Korver thinks his extended absences have offered some benefits.
“We’ve had to pay attention to detail on defense and rebounding,” Korver said. “Thibs is a coach where we will focus on that anyway. But with Derrick out, we know we have to be so good at that end. So that has helped us.
“We’re obviously going to be at our best when Derrick is clicking on all cylinders. Our offense is predicated on putting Derrick in pick-and-rolls and him creating things. But it’s good for other guys to step up when we have to. And we’ve had to do that a lot this year.”