A palpable energy manifested inside the AT&T Center from the moment the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs tipped off on Wednesday night. After the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo displaced the Spurs for a nine-game stretch dating back to Feb. 4, fans finally welcomed their home town team back to the friendly confines on the heels of an impressive 12-1 run before the All-Star break. Derrick Rose notched a game-high 29 points and distributed a team-high four assists in an especially gutty performance, as the Bulls overcame a 15-point fourth-quarter outburst from Gary Neal and secured a 96-89 victory over the NBA's hottest team.
Early offense for both teams flowed through their star point guards, highlighting the marquee matchup between Rose and Tony Parker. When they last locked horns in Chicago on Feb. 17, 2011, Rose dominated by scoring a career-high 42 points and dishing out eight assists to Parker's 24 and four. In the rematch on Wednesday, Rose once again pushed hard to gain an early advantage and then maxed out his effort down the stretch to take control of the game for good. Parker scored all 11 of his points and offered up eight of his nine assists in the first three quarters, but the Frenchman deferred to Neal in the final period and simply couldn't match Rose's production or impact.
Chicago's offense didn't exactly run smoothly in the opening quarter -- the Bulls scored all 20 of their first period points either in the paint or from the free-throw line (via @JeffGurt) -- but turned it on in the second to claim a 50-42 halftime lead. An awkward collision that sent the reigning MVP to the floor writhing in pain and clutching his right knee marked the biggest moment in the Rose-Parker matchup during that time frame. Parker stepped in front of Rose to intercept an outlet pass after a Tim Duncan miss with just under three minutes to go in the first. As the Spurs gained control of the ball, Rose collapsed to the floor and limped off with help from the training staff. For a brief moment Bulls Nation started inching towards the white light, but their leader quickly returned to action after the staff confirmed he just knocked knees with Parker.
Joakim Noah emerged as an unexpected star of the game around the midway point. He notched a double-double not even halfway through the third quarter (in his first 21 minutes of play), and bothered Tim Duncan with his length, athleticism and energy on the defensive end. Duncan still managed to make his mark -- 18 points on 8-for-21 shooting and 10 rebounds-- against lesser defenders Omer Asik and Carlos Boozer in pick-and-roll and when fronted in the post. However, his possessions against Noah only looked good for a few minutes during a 14-3 third quarter run that gave the Spurs the lead.
Derrick Rose received almost no help from his teammates on the offensive end in the second half. Well, at least until the final minutes. He created open shots for everyone along the way, but nobody could capitalize. Noah's decisiveness in the first two quarters earned him 10 quick points and prompted an emotional Finga Gunz celebration, but even he crapped out in the second half when the Spurs defenders opted to sag off any time he lurked beyond 15 feet from the rim. That strategy from Greg Popovich could have worked for anyone in a Chicago Bulls uniform for most of the night, honestly.
On the evening, Bulls players hit just 17-of-51 shots outside the paint. The important consolation to that ineptitude is that they back-loaded their success for the fourth quarter. They stepped up and nailed 6-of-12 away from the paint and 3-of-5 from beyond the arc as a team to clinch the game in the final 12 minutes. Neal dropped 15 points to keep the Spurs on the brink of a comeback in the final period and finished with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, but Rose took responsibility for maintaining Chicago's slim margin until the end. He improbably converted several acrobatic layups in traffic down the stretch, and also set up Luol Deng (10 points, nine rebounds) and Kyle Korver (eight points, four rebounds) for backbreaking threes in the final minutes. The team needed to be carried at several points in the night, and Rose stepped up to the challenge.
Despite a playoff atmosphere, Tom Thibodeau opted to sit veterans Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton for the entire fourth quarter and instead turned to younger quality defenders, Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer. The road win over the Spurs is the clear headliner for the Bulls, but that last factoid might be the most important trend to watch going forward. If Hamilton and Boozer can't contribute in big games against quality opponents, can Chicago really knock off LeBron James and the Miami Heat?
The Bulls improved to 29-8 with the win, while the Spurs fell to 24-11 overall.