Derrick Rose felt ready to start on Thursday night, but it was very apparent that he wasn't ready to finish. Luckily for the Chicago Bulls, C.J. Watson was.
With Rose struggling mightily in his return to the lineup after missing Tuesday night's win over the New York Knicks with a sprained right ankle, backup point guard Watson stepped in and stepped up in 27 huge minutes off the Chicago bench. The fifth-year man out of Tennessee scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, notching nine assists against just one turnover to go with three rebounds and three steals, and he nailed a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of the fourth quarter to send the Bulls' marquee Thursday night matchup with the Miami Heat into overtime. Once there, the Bulls bench bullied the Heat, outscoring Miami 12-2 in the extra frame and nailing down a 96-86 overtime win that clinched the Bulls' second straight Central Division title and gives Chicago (45-14) a four-game lead over Miami (40-17) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
After resting his ailing ankle for a couple of days, Rose felt ready to give it a go and return to the starting lineup for the Thursday night showdown between the teams with the East's two best records. He looked rusty and rickety, though, going scoreless in the first half for the first time in his 304-game NBA career (playoffs included) and managing just two points on 1-of-13 shooting in 25-plus minutes of floor time. (He did chip in eight assists, three rebounds and a steal.) As he's done all season, though, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looked down the bench, called on a reserve and expected him to do the job. Watson delivered, turning in stellar play to close the third quarter, in the first nine minutes of the fourth and running the show for the entirety of overtime. In fact, according to K.C. Johnson at the Chicago Tribune, Thibodeau said after the game that "if Watson had not needed a short, fourth-quarter break, Rose [...] would have sat for the final 18:45."
While Watson's performance drew headlines, he wasn't the only member of the Bulls' so-called "Bench Mob" to come up huge. Taj Gibson scored 11 points, grabbed five rebounds and was a game-changer at the start of the overtime period. Omer Asik had just about the most dominant scoreless night you'll ever see, grabbing eight rebounds, blocking two shots and locking down the paint in just under 23 minutes of intimidating defensive work. Kyle Korver was locked in, hitting 5 of 6 3-pointers and scoring 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a 27-foot bomb with 1:01 left in added time that put the Bulls up 10 and sealed the win.
In revisiting Watson's 3-pointer Friday morning, Blog a Bull's Matt writes that he thinks something went awry for the Heat on that defensive possession: "Someone between LeBron and Battier was supposed to switch (or stay) on Watson, and instead they both follow Korver into the Taj pick effectively making it a triple-team." Still, five very big things had to go right in a very short period of time for the Bulls to knot it up.
Korver had to safely pass out of the triple-team, Carlos Boozer had to both recognize that there was a wide-open shooter on the far side of the floor and get the ball to him, Watson had to avoid the hard-charging Wade's closeout without being run off the 3-point line, and then Watson had to knock down the long ball with 2.2 ticks left on the clock. (Plus, it's not as if the play unfolded exactly how Thibodeau drew it up, either; according to the Tribune's Johnson, Watson joked after the game that the final play call "definitely wasn't for me.") But they all did; Chicago went 5 for 5, adding five more minutes to the game, and closing it out from there.
For his part, Rose said he had no problem with staying seated while Watson and the Bench Mob walked Miami down in the third and fourth quarters, then eventually put the Heat away in OT. From Nick Friedell at ESPN Chicago:
"I'm fine, man," Rose said of coach Tom Thibodeau's decision to sit him down the stretch. "Anything to win. Where he felt that lineup was going to win the game, it won the game, and I can't complain about anything." [...]
Thibodeau admitted it was a little strange benching the reigning MVP. [...]
"Big picture, in terms of, if this were his first or second year, maybe you would be more concerned with that. But where Derrick is now as a player, he knows, he understands the situation. [...] The thing that you love about him, he was so happy we won, and so happy for his teammates, and that's who Derrick is."
Bulls center Joakim Noah likewise lauded Rose's leadership as "a team-first guy" whose approach and attitude "trickles down to everybody" in the Chicago locker room. Noah clearly takes the message to heart if he's not carping after the lengthy siesta he saw Thursday night — he was replaced by Asik with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter, didn't play in the fourth and stayed parked on the bench until Gibson fouled out with 1:23 left in overtime. Despite totaling just 22:45 of floor time for the game, though, Noah struck a positive note. No poo-poo faces here.
That Chicago's bench was the X-factor on Thursday is no surprise, given the way the two teams' prior three games of this season worked out. When the Heat beat the Bulls in their first meeting of the season, back on Jan. 29, the two benches played to a standstill on the score sheet, with each contributing 17 points in a game largely decided by the starting 10. (Miami's reserves actually got the better of Chicago's in other areas, outrebounding the Bulls' backups 17-10 and dishing five assists to Chicago's one.) In their last two matchups, though, the Bulls bench has been the overwhelming difference-maker, outscoring Miami's second unit by a staggering 103-22 margin in two games decided by a total of 14 points. Not surprisingly, Chicago won 'em both.
It bears mentioning that LeBron James missed one of two free throws with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter. If he'd made them both, Miami would have taken a two-possession lead at 85-81, meaning Chicago needed two scores to win. Instead, he put the Heat up 84-81, leaving the door open for Watson's 3-pointer to stretch out the game.
It also bears mentioning that 38 seconds earlier, James hit a corner 3-pointer of his own to put Miami up 83-81, and that he scored 30 points with six rebounds and five assists for the game, and that he absolutely carried the Heat through the multiple stretches of the game during which every one of his teammates — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh included — played like hot garbage. So make of LeBron's late-game play what you will. (As if we weren't all going to do that anyway.)
Are the videos above not working for you? Please feel free to watch Watson sending the game to overtime and the Bulls' bench dominating the extra frame elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the National Basketball Association.