Rose makes his point in playoff debut

BOSTON – Derrick Rose had heard all the chatter. How he couldn’t handle playoff pressure. How he, a rookie, couldn’t lead a team in the playoffs.

Does 36 points, 11 assists, four rebounds and one dominating performance in a 105-103 Bulls’ overtime victory in Game 1 over the Celtics change any of that? It should.

“I heard it all,” Rose said, matter-of-factly. “I want all the pressure as a rook and people saying I can’t lead the team. We fed off of it.”

Like a voracious Henry VIII at dinnertime.

“He was,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “absolutely fantastic.”

In his very first playoff game, the precocious Bulls rookie was nothing short of sensational, leading Chicago to its first ever postseason victory over the Celtics. (For the record, Michael Jordan, in the early years, was 0-6 against Boston.) Rose made all 12 of his free throws, including two biggies with 9.1 seconds left in regulation, which gave the Bulls a 97-96 lead. And no, he wasn’t thinking about the Kansas game.

“Not at all,” he said with a laugh, recognizing that one free throw in that game would have given Memphis the NCAA title. “I knew my team needed me to make them.” (Memphis fans, feel free to cringe here.)

Rose prevailed in an entertaining, occasionally shifting game of “Anything you can do, I can do better” with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who himself was also spectacular, submitting a playoff-best 29 points to go along with seven assists and nine rebounds.

If USA Basketball kingpin Jerry Colangelo has any doubts about the availability of Chris Paul or Deron Williams for 2012 in London, this game should put to rest any anxieties he might have concerning potential point guards.

To put Rose’s game in perspective, his season best was 27 points. He had never made more than eight free throws in any game. He matched his season high for field goals (12, in 21 attempts). No one in NBA history has scored more points in his playoff debut and only one, Lew Alcindor, scored as many.

But, more to the point, Rose was almost solely responsible for deconstructing what passed for the Celtics’ half-court defense (and yes, they clearly missed Kevin Garnett). That is, when he wasn’t out pushing the ball in transition, where the Bulls had a 24-13 advantage in fast-break points.

Time and again, Rose would make the slow-reacting Celtics pay on that bread-and-butter staple from middle school – the pick and roll. Once by his man, he was like an epicurean at a five-star restaurant buffet. He could dish off. He could penetrate and then dish off. He could take it to the hole, which he did time and again. He could squeeze off a jumper.

He did any and all of that.

“We can’t allow Rose to just get into the lane at will, all night long,” Paul Pierce lamented. “We have to do a better job on our pick-and-roll defense.”

Maybe that’s why Rose’s coach, Vinny Del Negro, liked the 11 assists more than the 36 points, “because when he’s making plays like that, the flow of our team is so much better.”

No, he didn’t look like a rookie. He didn’t play like a rookie.

“I didn’t think he’d let the pressure get to him after all the big games he played in high school and at Memphis,” Chicago assistant coach Del Harris said afterward. “But I wasn’t expecting this. That was, forget the rookie thing, a truly great playoff performance. You don’t need to qualify it.”

Ben Gordon agreed.

“He’s poised beyond his years,” Gordon said. “He already carries himself like a veteran.”

And yet, the story might have been the remarkable Rondo had Pierce not missed a potential game-winning free throw with 2.6 seconds left. Or had Ray Allen managed to make more than one field goal in 12 attempts, including a game-winning brick in overtime. This was Rondo’s first playoff game since he had 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals in the championship-clinching game against the Lakers. He loves playing against supposedly superior point guards, be they Paul, Tony Parker or, yup, even Rose.

“He’s good,” Rose said of Rondo. “As a player, I looked up to him when I was at Memphis. He does everything.”

Neither player scored a point in overtime (Rose fouled out with 10.3 seconds left), as the Chicago hero was the oft-maligned Tyrus Thomas, who hit three big jumpers, the last one coming with 50.5 seconds left, providing the winning margin. But down the stretch in regulation, the two point guards were huge.

Rose drove for a ridiculously easy layup with 31.1 seconds left, giving Chicago a 95-94 lead. Rondo tracked down an Allen miss and hit a tough flip from the lane over Joakim Noah with 22.1 seconds left. Rose converted the aforementioned free throws, the last of his 36 points, with 9.1 seconds left. In overtime, Rose assisted on two of Thomas’ jumpers.

Asked about the entertaining point guard matchup, an unusually testy Rivers snapped, “I don’t care about the Rondo-Rose battle honestly. The last thing I’m going to do is make this a Rondo-Rose battle. Rose was unbelievable. So was Rondo. Rondo was fantastic in his own right. But I care more about the Bulls and the Chicago-Boston battle.”

The Bulls took the big first step Saturday. It was a far cry from the Celtics’ playoff opener last year, when they blew out the similarly young, callow and playoff-challenged Atlanta Hawks 104-81. In that game, Rondo thoroughly outplayed Mike Bibby, to the point where Celtics fans chanted “Rondo’s better” when Bibby had the ball.

The Celtics may like what they have at the position, but their fans won’t be doing that anytime soon in this series. Derrick Rose saw to that in Game 1.


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Updated Saturday, Apr 18, 2009