Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, the NBA's reigning MVP, has missed one third of his team's games this season. Yet the Bulls have managed to compile the league's best record despite Rose's prolonged absences from the lineup. Heading into a home game against the Denver Nuggets Monday night, the Bullls were 12-4 in the 16 games that they'd played without Rose. But the Nuggets made them look like a team missing a significant piece as they ran away in the second half to a 108-91 victory.
The 108 points were the third most the usually stingy Bulls defense has allowed this season. Meanwhile on offense the Bulls were reduced to taking a series of jump shots. Had it not been for some very hot three point shooting (the Bulls made 13 for the game in 20 attempts, and Kyle Korver, John Lucas and C.J. Watson combined to make 11-15), the final margin of 17 would have been far worse.
The Bulls are sitting atop the Eastern Conference, and had already clinched a playoff berth with a month remaining in the season, so one might forgive them for getting a bit complacent and having a lapse Monday night. The Nuggets on the other hand are fighting for their playoff lives, while dealing with personnel changes as well.
At the trade deadline Denver made the bold decision to part ways with center Nene. After signing him to a five year, $67M contract a mere three months ago, the Nuggets had a case of buyer's remorse and sent him to Washington for a package that included young center JaVale McGee. McGee got his first start as a Nugget against the Bulls.
The Nuggets are also dealing with an injury to their leading scorer, Danilo Gallinari, who has been out for a week with a broken thumb, while at the same time re-integrating forward Wilson Chandler, who is back with the team after completing a season in China. With Gallinari and Nene out and McGee and Chandler in, the Nuggets are adjusting on the fly in the midst of a tight playoff race. Entering the day on Monday, Denver was tied with two other teams in the seventh, eighth and ninth spots in the West -- just a game ahead of the tenth place team, but likewise just a game behind fourth place. It's not exactly a situation where you can afford to be less than sharp as you're adjusting to new teammates.
The Nuggets looked perfectly comfortable with one another Monday. Led by Ty Lawson's 27 points and nine rebounds, Denver raced through a 27-16 third quarter and never allowed Chicago to get closer than nine the rest of the way. They scored at least 25 in all four quarters, shot 50 percent from the field, made half of their threes, grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, and had 10 steals. It was a thorough beating of the team with NBA's best record.
The Nuggets needed the win in order to keep pace in the West, as the Clippers, Jazz, Rockets and Suns all won as well. Denver remains tied with Utah and Houston for those seven, eight and nine spots. With a month remaining in the season, a game and a half now separates fourth place from ninth place in a conference where eight teams qualify for the playoffs. It's going to be a crazy finish.
The Bulls drop to 40-11, but maintain the same cushion for best record in the East as Miami lost as well.
For all of the Monday box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.